By C.M. Paul with in puts from Sr. Rose SABS
ZIRO (Arunachal Pradesh) – First three boys from Arunachal Pradesh’s Apathani tribe who received baptism 50 years ago celebrated golden jubilee of their baptism.
A gathering of some 5,000 people joined three bishops, 40 priests and scores of nuns at a function marking the historic baptism on September 19.
Joseph Tage Moda, one of the original Catholics of the northeastern Indian state, said he and two others were baptized on June 1, 1963.
“We had gone looking for a missionary school in North Lakhimpur town in the neighbouring state of Assam and came in contact with the Italian Salesian missionaries Frs. Luigi Cerato and Hugo Turco who took us in their school,” he recalled.
His colleague William Tage Tatun added, “On our holiday trips to Arunachal, we encouraged other young boys and girls to seek education provided by the missionaries in the various schools of the neighboring towns of North Lakhimpur, Harmutty and Tezpur, as well as Shillong, Kohima, Dimapur, and Imphal.”
It is no secret, said his friend Athanasius Roto Tajo ,“A good number of those who left Ziro for these missionary institutions returned as baptized Catholics.”
Although the Arunachal Government introduced the Freedom of Religion Bill in 1977 under Lieutenant Governor KA Raja, 20 years later, even with the nefarious Bill in vogue, Salesian Archbishop Hubert D’Rosario of Shillong-Guwahati laid the foundation stone for the Ziro church in 1989.
The Catholic parish at Ziro was set up in 1997 with Fr. Sebastian Ayilookunnel as resident parish priest.
Salesian Bishop Emeritus Robert Kerketta of Tezpur who nurtured the faith of the infant and persecuted Church of Western Arunachal congratulated the three golden jubilarians for their perseverance. He was accompanied by Bishop Michael Akasius Toppo of Tezpur.
“History has shown that the small step taken by the three young school boys to accept baptism, has been a giant leap not only for the Apatani tribe but also for the whole of Arunachal Pradesh,” pointed out Bishop John Thomas Kattrukudiyil of Itanagar.
“I thank God for giving me a good family, health and status in society,” said Moda, who had retired as Director of Fisheries, Govt of Arunachal Pradesh. “I firmly believe that all these good things happened in my life only because of God’s blessings,” added Moda.
“I am so happy and proud that thousands of others have followed our path,” said Tatun who set up the ‘Morning Star’ society after conducting a picnic with the three rupees they saved while trekking the jungle path from Lakhipur to Ziro during holidays.
Tajo admitted that he never thought his decision to get baptized could be historic. “Now I am amazed to see the opportunities that have been opened to our tribe because of our decision fifty years ago”.
The members of the ‘Morning Star Society’ came together to celebrate the golden jubilee of the first baptisms from their tribe clad in their finest traditional attire and holding high their heads, decorated with floral festoons and flags fluttering in the wind.
Addressing the jubilee meet, Padi Richo, the MLA from Ziro, recalled the pitiable educational scenario at Ziro before the arrival of the missionaries. “Today Ziro can boast of a good Catholic school and one of the best colleges in India. All these happened because of the decision of three boys, way back in 1963,” the MLA reiterated.
Fr. Xavier Musahary, the parish priest, prepared people for the jubilee with several retreats and weekly adorations.Speaking about his work among Apatanis, Fr. Xavier says, “I cannot think of a more vibrant parish to work in. I can see that the people value and treasure their faith. They are willing to make any sacrifice for it. Church attendance is always more than ninety per cent.”
Even a heavy shower during the function did not dampen their spirits. Fr Xavier led the people in prayer and the storm passed off in a few minutes.
People believe that government’s opposition to Christianity and persecution of Christians, “unwittingly gave more publicity to Christianity with the result that more people went in search of the forbidden fruit.”
Today, the Catholic Church in Arunachal Pradesh is now close to 200,000 among a tribal population of around 900,000 and cared for by two dioceses of Itanagar and Miao.