India: Chhattisgarh Church remains Shut, 6 weeks after Hindu mob forced closure
By Anto Akkara, World Watch Monitor On March 17, 2017
An Indian church remains shut, six weeks after a mob of angry Hindus halted a Sunday service and forced the pastor to close the church. He says the local government has sided with the mob.
The church is in Dalli Rajhara, a mining city in the central state of Chhattisgarh, which is governed by the Hindu nationalist BJP.
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"We have been running from pillar to post to get justice and the church reopened," Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum, told World Watch Monitor. "The police have not yet even registered a case about the attack - against even women and children, during worship, despite meetings with the various government officials, and public protests."
The incident took place on 29 January, at midday, when around 90 members of the New India Church of God were worshipping at the church attached to the home of the pastor, Jacob Joseph.
"A mob of 300 people gathered outside and started shouting slogans against us when we were in prayer," the pastor said. "They barged in and vandalised the bikes kept at the church gate. Those of us who went outside, after hearing the noise, were beaten up, including my wife and children.
"Then they dragged me out and asked to me shut the church and go back to Kerala [his native state, which has a strong Christian presence] and accused me of converting people. Several of my church members were assaulted.
"In the afternoon, six of us went to the police to register a complaint about the assault, but a mob of about the same size was at the police station when we arrived. Instead of registering my complaint, the police forced me to sign a declaration at the behest of the mob, saying that 'I am closing the church as it is illegal'."
Police address a crowd outside the church, in a photo sent to World Watch Monitor by church members.
Two days later, Mr. Joseph went with his wife and children to meet Rajesh Singh Rana, the "Collector" of the local district, who is in charge of the local government administration, and asked him to register a criminal case against the mob and to help reopen the church.
On 4 February, the police acknowledged the incident but refused to register a criminal case. The local Christians say it is because they do not want to be seen to be acting against the majority Hindus.
On 22 Feb., Pannalal led a team of 17 prominent civil rights and trade union leaders to the Collector's office, with a memorandum demanding the registering of a criminal case and the reopening of the church. Pannalal said they were disappointed that the Collector then failed to show, instead sending his deputy to meet them. He said it seemed like he was trying to avoid them.
Following this, more than 5,000 people, including secular activists, took part in a protest in Dalli Rajhara on 25 February, demanding "justice" for the Christians. But meanwhile, local Hindus demanded the arrest of the pastor and other Christians, claiming they had spoken "derogatively" against Hindu gods.
The Collector told World Watch Monitor on 9 March that the "issue has already been settled", but the church remains shut and still no criminal case has been registered.
Regarding the lack of an official case, Mr. Rana promised to "look into it".
Then on 14 March, he told World Watch Monitor the Christians had "not submitted any written complaint to the officials".
"Without written complaint, we cannot act," he added.
Regarding the reopening of the church, which had been in operation since 2004, when the pastor arrived in the area, Mr. Rana said "no application has been submitted".
However, the pastor says he filed a detailed complaint with the Collector on 31 January, in the presence of the chairman of the Chhattisgarh Minorities Commission.
After World Watch Monitor sent Mr. Rana copies of the Christians' complaints and a memorandum - which the police and his office had acknowledged with a government stamp - to seek his account of what happened, the Collector then failed to respond to repeated attempts to contact him by telephone.
"These officials are hand in glove with the Hindu fundamentalists," asserts Mr. Pannachal. "They are denying fundamental rights to the Christians."