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Church Fire, Hindu Goddess in Schools, Trumped-Up Charges: Christians in India Face Mounting Pressure

New Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto leads rally

John Matthew

Anto Akkara - published on 12/05/14

Concerned citizens take their case to Modi government.

Christians in India say incidents of discrimination have been on the rise since Narendra Modi became prime minister this year, but there has hardly been an incident as dramatic as the one that took place this week.

St. Sebastian’s Church, which is situated in a crowded middle class area of New Delhi, burned down Monday morning. The interior of the church, including the altar, statues, chairs and the entire balcony, had been gutted. And people are convinced it was no accident.

Father Stanly Kozhichira told Aleteia that kerosene jars were found on the terrace of the church and that “I could smell kerosene inside the church” after fire was put out.

Thousands of Catholics, along with other Christians, led by Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto and other leaders choked the busy roads around the Delhi Police Commissioner’s office hours after the church was burned.

“We are shocked. The fears in the Christian community are growing,” Archbishop Couto [pictured] told Aleteia. “There have been no threats or tension in the area. The church torching is a mystery. This aggravates fears in the (Christian) community to what is happening in other parts of the country,” he said.

Though the Delhi government has formed a high level team to investigate the torching, Catholic activist John Dayal told Aleteia that, “Our fears are far from over. They are worsening.”

“We cannot see it in isolation from other attacks on Christian targets. If churches can be burnt in other places, they could do it Delhi also,” Dayal noted.

In fact, church leaders shot off a memorandum to Prime Minister Modi, drawing his “attention to incidents of violence against our churches and personnel in the country.”

Modi is a member of the BJP, a political party known for espousing Hindu nationalism.

"The gutting of St. Sebastian’s Church, as well as other incidents of targeted violence in other parts of the country, speak of extreme police and administrative impunity and disregard not only to the sentiments and injured religious feelings of our community but also the guarantees of the Constitution of India," the memorandum said.

It also called for a ban on “hate speeches and targeted violence against the community, its churches, religious priests, pastors and nuns, and its institutions in several states, particularly Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.”

These two states in central India have reported spikes in incidents of anti-Christian violence since the BJP-led government under Modi assumed office in May. Two village churches had been torched in Madhya Pradesh, also ruled by the BJP, on the eve of the Delhi church torching, the memorandum noted.

Trouble has been brewing in Bastar district of Chhattisgarh state since the BJP won the national elections. First several “gram sabhas” (village  councils) passed resolutions to ban Christian practices and even prevented Christians from drawing from village wells and denied them subsidized food supplies aided by the government.

After Christians challenged the “illegal” bans against them, the Chhattisgarh high court ordered the BJP-led state government to explain its failure to uphold the rights of Christians.

Meanwhile, concerned secular and Christian activists organized protests in New Delhi at the end of September to mark the first 100 days of Modi’s government. A report, “100 Days Under the New Regime – the State of Minorities,” listed 600 incidents of violence targeting minorities, including 36 atrocities targeting Christians, who account for only 2.3 percent of India’s 1.25 billion people.

A fortnight later, Chhattisgarh was in the news again after Dinesh Kashyap, Bastar BJP member of Parliament, visited Bhanpuri village and washed the feet of some Christians and declared that they had undergone “
ghar vapsi” (home-coming) to the Hindu fold.

Hours after government officials convened the protesting Christians for a “peace meeting,” a truckload of Hindu fundamentalists reached the venue and attacked the Christians, leaving a dozen Christians in the hospital.

Pointing out that “Chhattisgarh has particularly witnessed regular and repeated attacks on the fundamental rights of the minority Christian community,” the memorandum cited the shocking incident of the Catholic Diocese of Jagadalpur being pressured to put up pictures of a Hindu goddess in Catholic schools.

Under a “joint agreement” released at a press conference on November 23 by leaders of local Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), leaders of the diocese said that the majority Hindu student body in 20-odd Catholic schools would be exempted from addressing the principals of the church-run schools as “Father.”

“We have to keep our institutions running,” Father Abraham Kannamplackal of Jagadalpur Diocese told Aleteia about the “agreement” he had to sign with the VHP leaders.

In the context of such brazen attempts to bring the minorities to their knees, the church leaders in their memorandum reminded Prime Minister Modi: “India is a land where different religious faiths have long since flourished and our founding father made special efforts to ensure that the rights of all are safeguarded irrespective of our religious beliefs, gender or caste.”

“Any attempt to weaken the socio-religious fabric of the nation must be dealt with swiftly and effectively. We hope and pray that such discrimination and targeted violence will be ended by strong political will and administrative action,” they urged.

“Small religious communities such as the Christians need to be reassured they are protected and are secure and safe in their motherland,” the memorandum reminded Modi.

Meanwhile, Christians are furious over the “illegal detention” of a 60-year-old Jesuit principal on a trumped-up molestation charge in eastern Jharkhand state. A magistrate sent Father Soosai Nayagam, principal of St Berchmans’s Inter-College (higher secondary school) at Mundli was sent on November 24 to police remand for two weeks, despite the alleged victim refusing to sign the police register.

“This is a pre-planned and fabricated case,” lamented Jesuit Father George Uthirakulam, vice provincial of Dumka-Raiganj. The principal was arrested following violence by a section of the students after they “trapped” him to discuss a problem in the classroom and accused him of molesting a 19-year-old girl.

“Within five minutes of the trouble, ten TV channels were on the campus. Everything was cleverly planned and executed,” Father Uthirakulam pointed out. The priest was “framed” for being “strict with the students,” he added.

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