Priests, schoolgirls join rally in India over gang rape of elderly nun

KOLKATA (AFP) - Hundreds of priests, schoolgirls and other protesters staged a peaceful rally on Monday in the Indian city of Kolkata to support an elderly nun who was gang raped at her convent school.

Nuns dressed in white habits joined other women of all backgrounds and ages, including girls still in their uniforms, to express their sorrow over the attack and anger over incessant levels of sexual assault in India.

Holding placards and banners that read "This world belongs to women" and "We want rape-free India", the crowd gathered quietly in a park in the centre of the eastern city as speakers took to a makeshift stage nearby to condemn the "unacceptable" attack. "We are not violent, we are not witches. And we will launch a big protest if attacks on Christian minorities continue," Kolkata businesswoman Hari Joseph Marien told AFP.

Bank manager Partha Tripathi said she was prompted to join the protest because the crime was one "against humanity", adding: "It seems that even animals (behave) better."

The assault on the nun, aged in her 70s, is the latest in a string of high-profile rapes in India and comes after a spate of attacks on churches that prompted Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi to promise a crackdown on religious violence.

Priests and other Christian leaders have blamed those attacks on religious hardliners, who are said to have become emboldened since Modi swept to power at general elections last May.

Mr Modi had been heavily criticised for not speaking out earlier against religious violence and has also faced flak for remaining silent about a spate of mass "reconversions" of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism.

Archbishop of Kolkata Thomas D'Souza stressed the rally was not against any political party, as fear and dismay mount in India's Christian community, which has been deeply upset over the recent attacks on churches.

Archbishop D'Souza estimated that a couple of thousand people took part in the rally at which prayers were held and candles lit alongside a statue of Mother Teresa, a missionary who worked tirelessly in the slums of Kolkata.

"We have assurances from the government that the miscreants will be arrested, but not much headway has been made in this regard," he said of the rape.

The nun, who cannot be named for legal reasons, was attacked after the robbers ransacked the Convent of Jesus and Mary at Ranaghat, 70km from Kolkata, and stole cash and other items.

A holy scripture was also torn and a statue of Jesus was broken.

Police said on Monday 10 men have been detained for questioning but no arrests have been made, even though the faces of four of the robbers were captured on CCTV footage.

The woman, who needed surgery from injuries suffered during the attack, is recovering in hospital in Ranaghat.

The incident adds to a grim record of sexual assaults in India and comes during a raging debate over the banning of a documentary about a December 2012 gang-rape in New Delhi that sparked national and international outrage.

"I am shocked and appalled that something like this could happen," 20-year-old American Brianna Miller, who is studying in Kolkata, said at the rally.

Mr Modi in February pledged a crackdown on religious violence and freedom of worship for all faiths in the wake of the vandalism and arson attacks on churches.

Around 80 percent of India's 1.2 billion population is Hindu, but it is also home to large numbers of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.

His government again came under criticism on Monday, with opposition lawmakers raising the nun's rape in the national parliament.

"Our PM has been saying again and again that he will ensure there is no attack on minorities. What is the sanctity of such assurances then?" asked Mr D. Raja, a member of the Communist Party of India.

The chief minister of West Bengal, of which Kolkata is the capital, was expected to visit the convent later Monday.