By Jeemon Jacob 4/19/2006 UCANews (www.ucanews.com)
MURINGOOR, India (UCAN) – Thousands of people including Hindus have backed a Catholic retreat center in southern India after a Hindu front demanded its closure.
Posters put up by right-wing Hindu organizations in various places of Kerala state accuse Divine Retreat Centre of several transgressions. The groups have also held street corner meetings to condemn the Catholic center’s alleged large-scale conversion of Hindus.
The Vincentian congregation manages the center at Muringoor, a village in central Kerala, about 2,900 kilometers (about 1,800 miles) south of New Delhi. According to its director, Father George Panackal, it is the largest retreat center in the world. It conducts weekly retreats in six Indian languages and English throughout the year, and has served more than 10 million people from all over the world since 1990.
Hindu radicals have opposed the Catholic center since its beginning, but they stepped up their opposition after March 10, when the Kerala High Court ordered an investigation into its activities. The Hindu groups have banded under Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV, Hindu united front), which has the backing of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian people’s party), the main federal opposition party.
"We have demanded (the center’s) closure," HAV organizing secretary Kummanam Rajasekharan told UCA News April 11. He alleged the court ordered the probe after it found prima facie evidence against the center.
"Our investigations have revealed that the divine center is involved in large-scale religious conversions," Rajasekharan added. Other allegations against the center, he added, include murder and money laundering. He said his front would continue the campaign against the retreat center until it folds up.
Father Panackal says the controversies have not affected the center’s credibility. Soon after the news of the probe spread, thousands of people visited the center to offer prayers, he said. People from various religions have "pledged their support to us," the priest told UCA News. "I feel happy about it," he added.
However, the HAV campaign and the court order have hurt people at the center, many of them Hindus. Santosh Kumar, who now preaches at the center, views the developments as attempts to damage the center’s reputation. "But we believe in God and his wisdom," the 32-year-old Hindu told UCA News.
Kumar, who moved to the center in January, said he has not "come across any illegal activity here." He said he first came to the center in 2003 after his business suffered losses. After a weeklong retreat he decided to dedicate his life to preaching the Gospel at the center.
"Though I’m a Hindu by birth, today I believe in Christ and pray everyday," said Kumar, who claims he has regained all that he had lost. He currently runs a hair salon at the center and preaches whenever he finds time.
Another Hindu "deeply pained by the allegations" against the Catholic center is Shyla, a woman living with HIV. She told UCA News she came to the center when she "lost all hope in life," as nobody was willing to help her family after news spread that her husband had tested positive for the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which usually leads to AIDS. "But Divine Retreat Center offered us a comfortable stay and care," continued the woman, who now lives at St. Vincent Home, which is attached to the retreat center.
Her husband and daughter also are among the 100 people with HIV at the home. "The priests and nuns here are doing a great service. It’s unfortunate that they have become the subject of wild allegations," Shyla said.
Sudheer Antony, a Hindu convert to Catholicism, sees the controversy as the "handiwork" of agents of darkness. He said he came to the center "voluntarily" and became a Catholic when he experienced God there. "I want to tell others what I have experienced," he added, explaining his reason for staying at the center. He dismissed the HAV protests as "ill-motivated campaigns" and said God will protect the center from forces that want to destroy it.
Margaret John, 48, who lives in a house for poor people located in the center complex, said the allegations have "shocked" the people who depend on the retreat center. She said the center offered her and two daughters shelter when her mentally ill husband disappeared a year ago. She also said she has no place to go if the center is closed.