BATTLE FOR THE BODY OF PUNJAB'S LAST BRITISH PRIEST
To his family and friends in England and North America, Father Mark Barnes was a gentle giant of a man, a priest who visited only to sell rosary beads and raise donations for poor villagers in rural Punjab. But to the Catholic church in India's north-western state he was a rogue cleric who had absented himself from the diocese and acted as a lightning rod for dissent among Punjabi Christians.
Although the priest died nearly four months ago, a bitter fight for his body rages between the Catholic diocese and his Punjabi followers. The roots of the dispute can be traced to the cleric's attempt to train "Punjabi" priests and nuns from poverty-stricken villages. In defiance of the bishop, he started building churches, convents and seminaries. This was an anathema to the church, whose clergy is drawn from upper caste southern Christians. Even at the age of 72, Father Mark whizzed along the flat fields of Punjab on a red 250cc motorbike, living and working among the poor.
A pile of bricks stacked along the baked ground is all that remains of the grave in his church compound in the shabby Gumtala village on the edge of Amritsar. Thousands of his followers attended the cleric's burial in February, mobbing his younger sister, Anne Wakeling, who had flown from Britain for the funeral. But that night 70 men, some wearing police uniforms, dug up the coffin and dumped it in a nearby field. The body of Punjab's last British priest lies today covered only in acrimony, legal writs and mud. The church wants the body removed to its main cemetery in Jullundur, 60 miles away. The priest's followers say the church wants land that the priest had distributed to the poor and to regain control of the seminaries and convents.
"It is a scandal," Ms Wakeling says. "Mark only wanted to help the poor and it was their request to have his body in a place near to where they lived because they cannot afford to travel. I thought that was right but the Catholic church in Punjab does not." The priest's sister lives in Kent but has spent "months trying to get this sorted in the Punjab courts". She adds: "I am a Catholic but the cold-blooded way these priests have talked to me, it makes my blood boil." Punjab's high court will hear the arguments next month.
Father Mark arrived in 1964 in Punjab. Two decades living among the downtrodden transformed him into a social activist who believed that people should "free" themselves from poverty. It was an Indian version of liberation theology, a doctrine developed by South American Catholic priests which advocates fighting against political systems they believe are at the root of poverty. The Indian Catholic church has worked hard to prevent congregations being swayed by the doctrine.
Father Mark's flock came from the lawless border belt around Ajnala in Punjab, which divides India from Pakistan. Almost all his congregation were from an untouchable caste who converted first to Islam to escape stigma and then became Christians during partition in 1947 so they could remain in their historic homeland. Until Father Mark arrived, they made a living by stealing and smuggling. But the priest cleared and cultivated government land, handing over plots so that families could depend on farming.
"He was an independent missionary who took 5,000 acres lying barren and then cleared it, tilled it, farmed it and then handed over plots of 10 acres to the poor. He was a messiah to them," said Kanwal Bakshi, a local Christian politician. In the hamlet of Skih Bhatti, five miles from the border, villagers' eyes fill with tears at the mention of Father Mark. "He was a holy man, a spiritual man," says Clara Massih, leading the way to her home built with the money from Father Mark's gift of 10 acres. "Without the plot of land we would never have this."
It was the growing empowerment of village life, say Father Mark's supporters, that provoked the ire of the church. In Punjab, the church's priesthood is dominated by men from the state of Kerala in southern India. About 85% of the clergy are southerners. "All these Keralites have come here and taken over," says Sister Sabha, a nun from Father Mark's convent in Gumtala. "They do not speak our language or respect us. They just look down upon us."
But the chances of Father Mark's followers getting their wishes appear slim. "The problem is that Father Mark would not obey the Bishop of Jullundur's orders. The bishop wanted Mark to move away from Amritsar and he refused," says Father John Mankuzhichalil, the priest in charge of Amritsar. "But Mark remained a priest and that means we became his family. His sister and brothers cannot now claim what they no longer own."
Posted on 2005-07-12