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Priest at forefront of nuclear protest.

A former Bahrain priest is spearheading a campaign to prevent a nuclear power plant from being built in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu. JENNIFER GNANA discovered why the controversy has impelled some to go on hunger strike.

Walking barefoot on a beach in India's southern coast, far from the comforts of the Manama parish he served for five years, Father Servatius Soosai paused to explain his renunciation of footwear.

"I consider earth as our mother. It's wrong to trample all over her with shoes. Secondly, you get free accupressure walking barefoot!," he said, referring to the ancient Chinese therapy acupuncture.

"There are millions of people in the world without footwear, so let me express solidarity with them," he added, looking up to the tall spires of St James Church in Vaniakudy, a fishing hamlet in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

At 68, Fr Servatius has renewed his 22-year fight against a nuclear plant that was constructed despite stiff opposition from the region's fishing community and villagers.

The plant, located in Kudankulam, a village along the southern coastline, is set to generate the first unit of the 1,000 MW of electrical power it is capable of producing shortly.

It came into being as the result of an agreement India signed with Moscow in 1988 to install Russian-engineered reactors.

The decision caused deep consternation among local people, who saw their livelihoods under threat.

Born into a fishing village called Kurumpanai in 1943 and having occasionally gone out to sea in his youth, Fr Servatius decided to campaign on behalf of the fishermen in 1989.

"Our slogan was 'Save water, Save life'. If we protect our waters, we'll be able to protect lives," he said.

Much of their opposition was against the government's decision to use the water of a dam meant for agriculture to cool the reactors and the release of used water into the sea.

"Poor fishermen are being punished in the interests of a nation seeking to maximise its energy potential," he said.

"It can be produced in so many different ways, it need not be only atomic power plants."

At a major rally held on May 1, 1989 in the Kanyakumari district attended by anti-nuclear activists from across India, Fr Servatius was beaten up by the police for protesting.

As a translator for retired Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer, who was due to address the rally, he was not wearing his cassock at the time of the assault in which police opened fire on the protesters, injuring two people.

Suffering bruises to his back and thighs and deprived of his spectacles, he was taken to a Catholic hospital in his diocese where he was initially refused medical treatment.

"I had to tell them, I don't want to file any case," he said (Indian law states victims of assault have to fill out a police First Information Report (FIR) report before they are treated).

Fr Servatius said he was only admitted to the hospital after he offered to bring a lawyer to confirm he would not pursue legal action against his attackers.

It took the priest, who was 44 years old at the time, two months to fully recover.

"In the hospital, I was lying with my head downwards and my brothers and my sisters and my family members were around me, questioning me," he said.

Fr Servatius said it was his faith that helped him withstand the pain.

"I told them: 'No priest was beaten up like this, but I know my leader was beaten up, he was flogged, crucified and he was killed. I need to imitate my leader'," he recollected.

"They said I was mad!"

The movement against the nuclear power plant was rekindled earlier this year when hundreds of fishermen, priests and villagers went on a 12-day fast in September and October.

Fr Servatius attributes the renewed protest to the nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, which he said cast fear in the minds of the people.

"We cannot live peacefully when this plant is close to us," he said.

The priest was at the Bishop's House in Nagercoil attending a retreat, when he heard of the fresh wave of protests.

After unsuccessfully trying to convince the bishop to allow the participating priests to attend the protests, he decided to give the retreat a miss.

Skipping his lunch and siesta, he rode on his scooter to St Lourdes Church in the coastal village of Idinthakarai where the protests were being held, a journey that took him an hour and 30 minutes.

At the fast and protest rally, Fr Servatius was introduced as "the priest who had been beaten up" for the cause they were fighting for.

"I spoke to the people that this is a dangerous game they (the government) are playing with us. It is a question of life and death. We should not leave, we should continue protesting," he said.

As the assistant parish priest of Sacred Heart Church in Manama from 2001 to 2005, his ministry was known for its support to fishermen who faced the danger of pirates and run-ins with the Qatari Coastguard.

"I spoke to the owners of the boats. You cannot keep quiet when your workers are in trouble," said Fr Servatius.

"You have to spend some money which you can make up as they will work for you with much more dedication and they obliged.

Intervention

"They never expected this sort of intervention."

As spiritual director for the Tamil-speaking Catholic community of the parish, he convinced the then parish priest Fr Felicio Diniz, to introduce worship centres in Sitra and Muharraq on Tuesdays and Saturdays for fishermen unable to regularly attend weekend services, which still continue.

Since leaving Bahrain in 2005, Fr Servatius has visited his old parish twice in 2006 and in 2009, on his way to France for a spiritual convention.

"Whenever I visit Bahrain, I have lot of fans," he chuckled.

He says his best memories of the island were the times when he had been of use to people facing difficulties.

He recounted helping two young Filipino women involved in prostitution to find shelter and return home, an encounter that is featured in his book An Oasis, which he wrote in Bahrain.

An academic who has written two books of poetry and prose, Fr Servatius has also won several awards including Bharath Jyothi Award (2000) in India as well as the International Distinguished Leadership award (2001) in the US and was recognised with the Outstanding 2000 Intellectuals of 21st Century award (2002) in the UK.

Taking over the reins of Vaniakudy, a parish slowly recovering from the Indian Ocean tsunami which claimed several lives only a year before his posting was no easy task.

The village of 8,000 had been shepherd-less for sometime after his predecessor had been driven out by villagers.

His new posting, he admitted, was "challenging" at first.

Vaniakudy has strong connections with the Middle East as more than 200 of its people work as fishermen in Bahrain and Qatar.

Outside the residence of Fr Servatius in Vaniakudy was a group of fishermen who had not gone to sea for weeks in protest against the nuclear plant.

"He doesn't speak like the others. He speaks to us very lovingly," said Mohan Raj, who was part of the throng.

If the government goes ahead with generation of power from the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant and should the situation escalate, Fr Servatius would be willing to put himself on the frontline again.

"We don't want this project, so please stop it. We'll participate in the struggles," he said.

"They may not ask us to be in the forefront but we have already stood at the front."

Age, according to the priest, is no barrier to protest.

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Geographic Code:7BAHR
Date:Mar 15, 2012
Words:1315
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