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‘No to Fanatics, Yes to SC Status': India’s First Dalit Cardinal on Conversion

Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola is also the first from Telugu states to become a Cardinal.

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The Archbishop of Hyderabad, Anthony Poola, now represents the growing aspirations of a marginalised section among Christians in India – the Dalit Christians. Poola has become the first Dalit to become a Cardinal of the Catholic church in the country.

Speaking to The Quint, Poola was clear about his position on the most contentious matters that have been affecting Christians in the country: Attacks on churches and preachers and the elusive Scheduled Caste status for Dalit Christians. He condemned the first and supported the second.

On 29 May, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis elevated two prelates from India as Cardinals. With this, the country now has six Cardinals.

Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola is also the first from Telugu states to become a Cardinal.

Cardinal Anthony Poola with Pope Francis.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

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Conversion Bogey and ‘Fanatics’

Poola told The Quint, “The main problem or the big fault which they accuse Christians of, is that Christians convert people (to Christianity). This is the misunderstanding of the fanatical groups. Christians will continue the missionary activities in different areas.” He said that Christians have been trying to make the ‘fanatics’ understand the fallacy of misinformation about conversion.

Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola is also the first from Telugu states to become a Cardinal.

Cardinal Anthony Poola at a religious ceremony in Hyderabad. He is currently the Archbishop of Hyderabad.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

In Karnataka, for instance, the state government has promulgated an anti-conversion law as an ordinance which the Metropolitan Archbishop of Bengaluru Peter Machado has been opposing fervently.

The Christians in Karnataka have also been resisting the alleged attacks on churches and preachers in the state.

When asked about the ordeal of the Catholic church in Karnataka, the Cardinal took a biblical reference: “According to St Paul we can face set backs, but we will overcome and spread the love of Christ.” Meaning, the church will face the adversities even as it continues its outreach to the masses.
Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola is also the first from Telugu states to become a Cardinal.

Cardinal Anthony Poola at a religious ceremony in Hyderabad. He is currently the Archbishop of Hyderabad.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

But in the case of Telugu speaking states, the church is also in touch with Chief Ministers of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the Cardinal said. “Both the Chief Ministers have been favourable to Christians, as they understand the importance of maintaining unity between various religious groups. When a problem arises, we do collaborate with them,” Poola added.

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Scheduled Caste Status for Dalit Christians

Cardinal Poola said that Dalit Christians have been demanding Scheduled Caste status for long.

“I am sorry to say that this (SC status) has been a demand from Dalit Christians for over 70 years. I hope the government understands the struggles (of Dalit Christians) and accords this status. I hope and pray for this,” Cardinal Poola said.

In 2008 a report of the National Commission for Minorities estimated, based on National Sample Survey Office (2004-05), that there are 32 lakh Dalit Christians and Muslims in India. This included 8 lakh Dalit Muslims and 24 lakh Dalit Christians.

Dalit Christian bodies in the country have contested these figures, stating that the population of Dalit Christians is higher. According to a 2020 PEW research study ‘Religion in India: Tolerance and Segregation’ about 33 percent of Christians in India identity as Scheduled Caste and 24 percent identify as Scheduled Tribe. According to National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) about 70 percent of Christians in India are from Scheduled Caste background.

Meaning, based on the two reports, the number of Dalit Christians in the country could be anywhere between 91 lakh and 1.94 crore.

Archbishop of Hyderabad Anthony Poola is also the first from Telugu states to become a Cardinal.

Cardinal Anthony Poola at a religious event. He is currently the Archbishop of Hyderabad.

(Photo: Accessed by The Quint)

Christians form 2.3 percent (2.78 crore) of the country’s population, as per the 2011 census. The contention among Dalit Christians has been that the caste status does not essentially change even after adoption of Christianity.

Dalit Christians need concessions offered by the Indian Constitution to marginalised groups like Dalits and Adivasis, it has been contended. “Pope Francis has been talking about unity in the church irrespective of caste and creed,” Poola said, hinting that caste difference among Christians is recognised even by the church.

The Catholic church among other Christian denominations have been officially seeking SC status for Dalit Christians. Currently, in states including Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana and Tamil Nadu, Dalit Christians are included under the Other Backward Classes (OBC) category.

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Representing South India Before the Pope

The Cardinal who did not want to further talk about controversial matters that concern Christians in the country, however, said that he will be representing the aspirations of South Indian Catholics before the Pope.

Poola is the first to get the Cardinal title from the Telugu speaking states. Cardinals also serve as Papal advisors.

He will be coordinating between “Pope Francis, the universal church (or churches across the world) and South Indian churches,” Cardinal Poola said.

The “missionary mandate” is still about the proclamation of the gospel (the life and message of Christ), education to the poor and downtrodden, and social service to the people. That is, the church continues to stress on mass outreach despite attack threats. The church will also be focusing on “medical missions” that provide health benefits through church run hospitals and clinics.

Anthony Poola is from Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh but started his life as a priest in Kadapa district. He has served the Catholic church in the US for one year. He was appointed the Archbishop of Hyderabad in 2021.

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