Priest arrested for “lockdown violation,” Odisha Catholics allege harassment

Priest arrested for “lockdown violation,” Odisha Catholics allege harassment

India_MattersIndia-Fr Dhiren Nayak

By Purushottam Nayak

Bhubaneswar, April 25, 2020: Catholics of Odisha’s Berhampur diocese say their Christian identity could invite harassment citing the recent arrest of a priest who allegedly broke lockdown rules.

According to Jitendra Nayak, pastoral council secretary of the St. Peter’s Catholic Church of Mohana parish, two policemen in civil dress suddenly entered the church campus and took assistant pastor Father Dhiren Nayak to station accusing him of breaking the nationwide lockdown guidelines to contain the spread of coronavirus.

According to him, the priest was going for lunch from the hostel to his residence, about 15 meters away, when the policemen entered the campus.

Nayak is a common surname in the region. The parish comes under Gajapati district and the incident occurred on April 17.

Sujit Kumar Nayak, in-charge of Mohana police station, reportedly told Father Dhiren that nobody was above the law and asked him to register his name and sign it for breaking the lockdown rule.

Father Dhiren said he had told the two policemen that was inside “our campus, not outside.”

But the police kept him inside the station for three hours from 12:30 pm. He was freed later and allowed to return to his residence.

Father Dhiren’s superior parish priest Father Valerian Nayak says the incident has hurt all sections of society. “People cutting across religious have expressed their deep sorrow, anguish, and anxieties,” he told Matters India over phone on April 25.

“We cooperate with the government and we abide by the Covid-19 guidelines during a lockdown. Coming to our campus and arresting a priest is wrong,” the parish priest asserted.

Jitendra, the lay leader, decried the police action and asked: “Can lockdown deny me to go from my own house to another house on my campus?”

“It is injustice to arrest our priest inside the parish campus. It hurts us,” Jitendra told Matters India over phone on April 25.

Lalita Bero, president of Mothers’ Association in the parish, too says the arrest has shocked and disheartened them. “We feel threatened to be Christians,” she told Matters India.

The 35-year-old Catholic woman says after the priest’s arrest she is afraid even to go to a nearby tubewell to collect water for cooking during the lockdown.

The priest’s parents, Joshua and Mary Nayak, who live in Budringi village under the same parish, said the arrest has made them sad. “He was arrested although he had done no wrong,” they told Matters India over phone.

The priest’s five brothers and three sisters have also termed the arrest as an unfortunate incident.

Father Nayak was ordained a priest on January 24, 2019, at the same parish by Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur. After ordination, he is in the same parish as an assistant pastor.

Mohana parish has some 8,000 Catholics in 1,432 families spread over 39 substations.

St Anne’s Sister Pratima Nayak, who teaches in the local Bimola Odia Medium School, says after the priest’s arrest they feel unsafe “even in our campus.”

Rajendra Nayak, a Catholic lawyer practicing in Mohana court for the past 11 years, says the arrest was “intentional harassment to our Christian religion.”

The lockdown rules forbid religious, social or mass gathering, but the priest did not violate any rule as the hostel is closed and nobody had come to the church for religious purpose. “But we can have prayer and worship in our house maintaining social distance,” he explained.

According to the lawyer, only a person accused of some violation could be taken to the police station.

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