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Arunachal remembers 50 years of first baptisms

Sept. 25, 2013

When all the Catholics from an entire tribe turns up for the celebration of the golden Jubilee of the baptism of three school boys, that makes everyone sit up and take note. That is what happened on September 19, 2013 at Ziro, one of the coldest places in Arunachal Pradesh. A crowd of 5,000 people jostled for space in the Ziro parish compound for the golden jubilee celebrations of the first three baptisms from the Apatani tribe. The three baptisms turned out to be landmark in the history of the Church in the state. Fortunately, all the three Joseph Tage Moda, William Tage Tatun and Athanasius Roto Tajo - who were baptized in 1963--were present at the solemn celebration of the jubilee of the historic baptism. They were indeed the cynosure of all the eyes, and occupied the front seats.

Some 40,000 Apatani people inhabit the Ziro plateau in Arunachal Pradesh state, which was forbidden for missioners for decades. Government controlled the outsiders' entry through special permission known as "inner-line permit." The government implemented this policy by denying the missionaries the mandatory permit. It also openly harassed those had embraced Christianity irrespective of Baptist, Catholic or Evangelical churches. The three young students had gone looking for a missionary school in the town of North Lakhimpur in the neighbouring state of Assam and came in contact with the Italian Missionary Fr. Luigi Cerato and got baptized on June 1, 1963. On their holiday trips to Arunachal, they encouraged other young boys and girls to seek education provided by the missionaries in the various schools of the neighbouring states of Assam and Meghalaya.

A good number of those who left Ziro for these missionary institutions returned as baptized Catholics. Though the teenager boys had no missionary support in their homeland, they kept their faith alive and turned into student apostles. They launched the Morning Star Society to coordinate their religious activities and common celebrations like Christmas. In the course of time, the Government changed its policy and the missionaries were allowed to enter Ziro. The Catholic parish at Ziro was set up in 1997 with Fr. Sebastian Ayilookunnel as resident parish priest. Ever conscious of their chequered past, the members of the Morning Star Society came together to celebrate the golden jubilee of the first baptisms from their tribe. Their enthusiasm was manifest in the crowd of 5,000 Catholics that flocked to the small parish campus, clad in their finest traditional attire and holding high their heads, decorated with floral festoons and flags fluttering in the wind.

At the solemn high mass concelebrated by three bishops and 40 priests, Retired Bishop Robert Kerketta of Tezpur, in his homily recalled the struggles of the infant church among the various tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. Joseph Tage Moda, one of three who were baptized in 1963, had retired from the post of Director of Fisheries of the Government of Arunachal Pradesh. I firmly believe that all these good things happened in my life only because of God’s blessings, added Moda. William Tage Tatun, who took the lead to set up the Morning Star society recalled how after conducting a picnic with the three rupees they trekked the jungle path from Lakhipur to Ziro during holidays.

Athanasius Roto Tajo admitted that he never thought his decision to get baptized was so historic. Now I am amazed to see the opportunities that have been opened to our tribe because of our decision fifty years ago. Parish priest Father Xavier Musahary had organised several retreats and weekly adorations to prepare his people for the great jubilee. 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 percent, he said.

A heavy shower in the midst of the felicitation function did not dampen their spirits. In fact, the parish priest spontaneously stepped on the dais and led the people in prayer to the Lord who calmed the storm on the lake Gennesarath. To the joy of the gathering, the storm passed off in a few minutes. The first baptisms from the Apatani tribe were also significant for the other tribes of Arunachal Pradesh. The Government, by opposing Christianity, unwittingly helped more people to find out this forbidden fruit. The result: the Catholics in Arunachal Pradesh now number to 200,000 in a population of some 900,000 people, predominantly tribal people.

Source: UCAN

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