One less place for those unwanted

Ahmedabad, India - For as long as the leprosy patients can remember, the nuns have cared for them in the government hospital, bandaging their wounds, handing out pills and giving them food.

But last month the state government kicked out the sisters. Soon, the Leprosy Hospital will close its doors.

The official reason is that leprosy is finished, a dying disease. But many here believe the decision has more to do with the pro-Hindu philosophy of the government of the western state of Gujarat, blamed for attacking Christianity and Islam since taking power in the late 1990s.

"I think religion has gone against these nuns," said M.D. Khursheed, the secretary of a nearby leprosy colony of 42 families. "Otherwise, there's no logical reason."

A small number of people are affected by the closing--five nuns, fewer than 100 leprosy patients and 368 HIV-positive patients in another program. But the decision has bigger implications for the government, long plagued by charges of persecuting religious minorities. Christians have been attacked for allegedly trying to convert Hindus. In 2002, Hindu mobs in the state slaughtered more than 1,000 Muslims in riots lasting several weeks.

Ashok Bhatt, the health minister of Gujarat, dismissed allegations that the decision was based on religion. He said the nuns' contract was not renewed because leprosy has been eradicated from the state.

"These people who have tried to defame Gujarat have no agenda but defaming Gujarat," Bhatt said. "My only prayer is, `God save them.'"

Treating leprosy patients has long been the work of Catholic nuns and Christian missionaries. Leprosy patients--easily recognizable because of missing fingers and toes and facial deformities--have been outcasts in most countries, not just India.

Because the disease is contagious and disfiguring, leprosy patients have typically been isolated, kicked out of their homes and moved into colonies. Often, only missionaries and nuns would care for them.

Catholic nuns, from the Salesian Missionaries of Mary Immaculate, took over the hospital from the government in 1949. After that, the government renewed the contract every five years. The contract always forbade the nuns from converting patients. Nuns insisted they never tried.

"I lived my Bible," said Sister Karuna, the former supervisor at the hospital. "I did not preach it."

Over the years, advances against leprosy have been made; new drug therapies can cure leprosy within a year. Leprosy cases dropped from about 10 million worldwide in 1985 to about 400,000 last year.

Colonies for so-called lepers have closed; in many countries, attempts have been made to reintegrate them into their communities and families.

`They destroyed our churches'

But in India, that is tough. People with the disease live on the margins, often as beggars. For some in Ahmedabad, the Leprosy Hospital and the leprosy colony are the only places they know as home.

The nuns' contract last came up for renewal in 2001, a few years after the Bharatiya Janata Party won power in Gujarat. Under the government, Catholics have had a difficult time, said Rev. Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit priest and social activist.

"They destroyed our churches; they beat up Christians," he said.

The government balked at signing the contract in 2001, Prakash said. Only after a lot of pressure and negotiation was it signed, he said.

This year, it was clear the Leprosy Hospital had little chance. Government officials sent a letter in late February saying the contract would not be renewed, and they refused to negotiate.

The hospital will close soon, along with the two other government leprosy hospitals run by Catholic nuns. The sisters have already moved back to their convent, but they are still trying to find a suitable place for their program that helps patients with HIV and AIDS.

The hospital will likely become a research center in the coming weeks, officials said. Remaining leprosy patients will have to leave.

The nuns and advocates worry that the decision will further isolate marginalized groups in India: people with HIV or AIDS, and leprosy patients.

"The government is not punishing the sisters," Prakash said. "They're not punishing the Christians. They're punishing the leprosy patients of Gujarat."

Dr. Julie Desai, the hospital's medical officer, insisted that the care is the same from the government workers who replaced the nuns early last month.

But leprosy patients told stories of being forced to wait outside other hospitals when they had open sores. They said the nuns touched them when caring for them. Government workers do not.

Bhimaji Thakore, 69, a Hindu, has been living at the Leprosy Hospital since Feb. 27. He said he has seen the difference in care between the nuns and the workers who replaced them.

"For all of us, the nuns were our gods," Thakore said. "They did everything for us. . . . These people insulted the sisters. It's like insulting or hurting a god."