India: The Death of a ‘Fearless Advocate of the Poor’

“His fate should be a wake-up call for the international community”

According to several international media reports, an elderly Indian Jesuit priest by the name of Father Stan Lourduswamy, imprisoned for several months by the Indian authorities, died on Monday 5 July 2021 in a Catholic hospital in Mumbai at the age of 84.

Father Stan Swamy SJ, an Indian Roman Catholic Jesuit priest, advocate of the poor, died in hospital at age 84 just days before a bail hearing.

Widely known as Stan Swamy, the priest had been suffering for some time from Parkinson’s and other conditions. Following his admission to hospital, he was also diagnosed with Covid-19.

“In Father Swamy, we have lost a fearless advocate for the poor and an inspirational Catholic pastor,” commented Dr. Thomas Heine-Geldern, the executive president of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN International). “It is unimaginable, the martyrdom he was forced to endure during the last months of his life,” he added.

In the afternoon, a boy rests with his dog in a small tribal village in Jharkhand State, where the houses of the Catholics are marked with a cross as a sign of identity and where Father Swamy did most of his work.

Not even international protests were able to secure an easing of the conditions in which he was held. The international pontifical charity ACN International was among those appealing for his release. For months, according to eyewitnesses, Father Stan had scarcely been able to eat anything while in prison, on account of his Parkinson’s condition. Eventually, (in May this year) after his condition had deteriorated further, the Bombay High Court agreed to allow him to be transferred to a hospital. A bail hearing had finally been agreed for July 6 – which Father Swamy did not live to see.

A man stands expectantly in front of the cross of a cemetery, in the countryside in Jharkhand State.

False Accusations Against Defenders of the Poorest

The fate of this Indian Jesuit priest has provoked international concern. Father Swamy was arrested in October 2020. The Indian authorities accused him of having contacts with Maoist and militant groups, which the Jesuit always denied. Father Stan had been working for decades in Jharkhand state in northwest India as an advocate for the underprivileged and for reconciliation among the tribal peoples.

Mother and son are at the first chapel of a parish mission, far away from other Catholic areas in Jharkhand State.

Father Swamy’s fate is one subsequently shared by many priests, religious and catechists in India, according to Dr Heine-Geldern: “We know from our project partners that false accusations are often made against them in order to intimidate and disrupt their work on behalf of the ethnic minorities and the castless dalits, (or ‚’untouchables’)”, he explained.

A group of Catholics listen and pray in the Mission chapel in Jharkhand State.

ACN is very concerned at the growing trend of Hindu nationalism in India, he added. This is a trend that was also identified in the international report on Religious Freedom Worldwide recently published by the charity. “This Hindu nationalist movement is seeking to force other religions such as Christianity out of India and suppress Christian voices in the country,” ACN’s executive president explained. “Instead, the suffering and death of Father Stan Swamy should now be a wake-up call for the international community. Freedom of religion and advocacy on behalf of the poorest of the poor in India must continue to be upheld,” he concluded.

A chagrined woman rests sitting on a staircase in the shade of a tree in Jharkhand State – her face in her hands.

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