Bareilly: Union minister and senior BJP leader Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi’s sister, a prominent social activist who runs an NGO working for women affected by triple talaq, was on Saturday afternoon accosted by three men and given death threats.
Farhat Naqvi, 35, who runs the Mera Haq Foundation, was on her way home when the alleged incident happened, metres from the Chowki Chauraha police outpost here at 12.30pm. “I boarded an e-rickshaw near Choupla and was on my way towards Chowki Chauraha when I first spotted a car following me. The car soon pulled over and an unidentified man started hurling abuses at me. The car then closed in further, and the man threatened to kill me. There were three men in the car. The police outpost was close by, and I tried raising the alarm, but the men fled,” said Farhat.
“I am not certain why I was threatened... About a month ago, I was stalked in the court premises. I had dismissed it back then as a minor incident... But this time around, there was a brazen attempt to intimidate me...,” she added.
“We are looking into the possibility that people who objected to Farhat’s work with triple talaq-affected women, or one of the families involved, could have done this,” said a police official.
At the Don Bosco Salesian House in Kochi, the vigil is over. Barefoot boys play basketball on the makeshift court in the premises and a tall, strapping priest briefly chips in, his white habit hitched up as he neatly dodges the defenders and surprises his wards with a slam dunk.
Every day, for 18 long months, the inmates of Don Bosco prayed for Father Tom Uzhunnalil, a fellow Salesian priest who was finally released from Islamic State captivity in Yemen last Tuesday. The Salesians, like many other Christian congregations in Kerala, send their most motivated members to various parts of the world, places marked by bloodshed or deprivation, or both.
The risks these modern-day missionaries face far outweigh the rewards – which are spiritual in any case — but there has been no sign of a decrease in one of Kerala’s principal ‘exports’. A popular saying among local Christian communities goes, “A family’s greatest wealth is an elephant or a priest.”
According to official sources in the Catholic Church, India, along with the Philippines and Vietnam, sends the most number of missionaries abroad. While there are no proper stats about priests from the rest of India, Kerala currently has 15,000 priests and 27,000 nuns working outside India. The number of Kerala nuns who work elsewhere in India is 56,000. This puts the total number of Kerala nuns working outside the state at 83,000. The number of nuns — belonging to Catholic and Syro-Malabar denomination — in Kerala itself is only 1,20,000, which shows the clear emphasis on challenging ‘missionary’ activity outside the fold, whether it is for spreading the Word or merely well-being — schools, hospices, and soup kitchens.
Fr George Muttathuparambil, a Kerala priest who was in Yemen with Fr Uzhunnalil, and had a narrow escape soon after the latter’s abduction in March 2016, says that foreign priests went to Aden and Sana’a at the request of the then Yemenese government to look after lepers and the ailing aged. The priests were forbidden from preaching. “Transformation into a better human is the expected end result BACK HOME: of a mission, and not conversion. Our definition of a missionary is simple – someone sent on a mission for goodness,” Fr Muttathuparambil, who started his work in Yemen at Hodeidah where three nuns were shot dead in 1988, told TOI.
There are many Kerala priests working in North America and Europe where congregations are dwindling by the day and vicars are hard to find. But if church sources here are to be believed, within the church itself ‘postings’ to the trouble spots of the world are considered more ‘glamorous’. A Dominican father based in Kottayam, who did stints in West Asia, Germany, Ireland and various dioceses in the US, and is now yearning for a ‘posting’ in West Asia or Africa, says that “in the US and Europe, our functions were largely ritualistic and sacramental. There was little or no real challenge”.
Priests and nuns chosen to work in remote locations are of course provided prior ‘acclimatisation’, notably in the form of language training, psychological adaptation, culture tips and also emergency survival skills. Fr Thomas Manninezhath, one of the first members of Carmelites of Mary Immaculate in Namibia in southern Africa, says that knowledge of the vernacular language is important. “It was a very new experience for me as I had never properly interacted with blacks. I used to teach them and though it was tough, I had a feeling of fulfilment in imparting knowledge to those kids there,” says Fr Manninezhath who worked for 17 years in Namibia.
Back at Don Bosco House in Kochi, Fr Paulson Kannappilly, the rector, reiterates that it’s all about doing good work and leading by example. “Our priests and nuns go to these distant places and try to inspire the local people. Soon they do things on their own,” he says. The sweaty novices, seated around him after the basketball session, nod in agreement.
An emotional Fr Tom Uzhunnalil during a press conference after his recent rescue from IS militants, who abducted him in 2016