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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 February 2007, 14:02 GMT
Priests act over child marriage
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Calcutta

Children in India
Child marriages are an ancient custom
Roman Catholic priests in some districts of the Indian state of West Bengal have punished Christians who continue to practise child marriages.

Catholics who allowed children to be married have even been excommunicated.

Their children have been denied baptism and the "guilty" families have been barred from attending Church functions.

Child marriage - an ancient Hindu custom - is banned by law in India, but is believed to be widely practised, particularly among the rural poor.

Publicly repent

Catholic priests in West Bengal's Nadia district say they have banned at least 15 Christian families from receiving the sacrament for three years as punishment for marrying off children.

Many other Christian families in Nadia and two other neighbouring districts have been asked to pay a fine for the same offence.

Asian women
Women and young girls sometimes have no choice but to marry

Bishop Joseph Gomes of Nadia district - the man leading the initiative to end child marriages - said that those who have been punished may be accepted back to the fold if they publicly repent.

Catholic elders in Calcutta say Bishop Gomes is carrying out what they described as an "experiment worth trying", but they were not sure whether the time was right to start a drive against child marriage across West Bengal.

The state is home to nearly one million Christians, among them some of India's oldest convert families who joined the faith in the early days of British rule.

But Roman Catholic priests in Nadia say they are confident of success, and that Christians can be persuaded to stop the practise.

Child marriages are punishable under law in India, but the tradition still continues and thousands of minors are married off every year, particularly in the rural areas where literacy is low.

Even in a "secular" state like West Bengal - which has been ruled by a Communist coalition for nearly 30 years - child marriages continue to be practised by different religions.

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