Christians Protest Violence as Church Burning Hits New Delhi, India
(Morning Star News) - Christians in New Delhi, unaccustomed to religious hostilities more common in remote areas, erupted in protest as violence hit the capital last week.
Church leaders wrote to national officials as the Advent season brought three disturbing incidents, including an apparent arson attempt. The interior of one of the larger church buildings in the Archdiocese of Delhi, St. Sebastian's Church in the Dilshad Garden area of New Delhi, was found charred on the morning of Dec. 1.
"The church was discovered burnt in the early hours of Monday morning," said Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council. "The congregation of the church worshipped in the building the previous Sunday, welcoming the season of Advent."
The entire interior of the church building, including the altar, a Bible and a cross, were reduced to ashes.
"Normally, in churches, there is a distance of about 20 feet between the altar and the pews, but the entire area was burnt," said the Rev. Vijayesh Lal, national director of the Religious Liberty Commission of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. "The burning is so thorough that nothing remains except the outer structure. This could not have been done except by design. Plus there was reportedly the stench of kerosene sensed all over the church. Foul play cannot be ruled out."
Christian leaders said police response was lax. Attorney Jenis Francis, president of the Federation of Catholic Associations of Delhi, told media that the Station House Officer (SHO) of Dilshad Garden police station was dismissive.
"The SHO didn't record any statements of the people present, and before we could press for more details, he went away," Francis said. "The ACP [Assistant Commissioner of Police] later declared that it was not a short circuit, but indeed, clearly a case of mischief."
A makeshift protest immediately materialized near the building, with more than 3,000 people in attendance by evening; they stayed late into the night in a candlelight vigil.
Archbishop of Delhi Anil Couto sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as to Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, calling on them to urgently order a judicial enquiry.
"The arson in St. Sebastian's church was condemnable not just because it was an act of sacrilege and hate against the community and its faith, but that it could happen in the national capital which is just recovering from a series of communal incidents," Cuoto wrote.
Christians from various denominations and others took to the streets on Dec. 2 to protest the burning. More than 5,000 people surrounded police headquarters near ITO Square, blocking traffic during peak hours, as a sign of protest and anguish. The protestors sang hymns and chanted, "We want Justice" as a delegation of Christian leaders met the commissioner of Delhi.
Later a delegation of Christian leaders also met the Lt. Governor of Delhi, Najeeb Jung, who assured the delegation of "zero tolerance against targeted and communal violence in the national capital."
The Delhi Catholic Archdiocese later that day issued a statement: "The burning of the church has created a sense of insecurity, and the government has to show by its action that it is concerned and will ensure security of all minorities in their motherland, especially the small Christian community which has been living peacefully for 2,000 years."
The Delhi government constituted a Special Investigation Team (SIT) under Joint Commissioner of Police Ravindra Yadav. Home Minister Singh told the Lower House of Parliament that the SIT will release its report within two months.
As protesters surrounded police headquarters on Dec. 2, a Roman Catholic convent in the Rohini area of New Delhi reported a break-in. Closed Circuit TV camera's captured four men breaking into the convent around midnight on Dec. 2, according to the report.
No damage was reported, but the convent staff alerted police.
On Saturday (Dec. 6) in the Jasola area of New Delhi, unidentified people pelted Our Lady of Fatema Church with stones during mass at about 6 p.m., damaging windows and causing the Syro-Malabar Catholic congregation to rush out in alarm.
A member told media that after the Dilshad Garden church fire the congregation felt especially threatened, and Archbishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of the Faridabad-Delhi Syro-Malabar Catholic Diocese reportedly said that although no one was injured, parishioners were "anxious."
Police registered a First Information Report against unknown persons.
Protests in Other States
Christians in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Punjab states last week held demonstrations protesting atrocities in India. The Chhattisgarh Christian Forum organized a protest on Wednesday (Dec. 3) and submitted memorandum to the Raipur Collector demanding judicial enquiries into violence against Christians in that state and in other parts of India.
The United Christian Welfare Association of India held a rally in Bhatinda, Punjab and stopped a train in protest against anti-Christian violence throughout the country; it also submitted a memorandum to the designated collector.
Earlier, Christian leaders in Nagaland had met Prime Minister Modi during his visit to the state on Nov. 30.
"We are deeply concerned about the continued violence and atrocities against Christians in different parts of India," the leaders wrote. "We are deeply pained to see our brothers and sisters targeted for no fault of theirs."
The letter, signed by most major Christian denominations in the state of Nagaland, noted that in many states, Christians are deprived of their fundamental right to freedom of religion and practice of faith.
"The psychological damage done to the Christian brothers and sisters from time to time is very grave," the leaders wrote. "We earnestly appeal that Your Honour takes up prompt action in such a way as to create tranquillity and render maximum protection to the Christians in India."
According to reports from Christian leaders, the prime minister showed deep concern and gave assurance that he would "look into the matter."
The protests follow two incidents in Anuppur, Madhya Pradesh, where Hindu extremist mobs disrupted two separate Sunday worship services on Nov. 30.
Some 35 to 40 extremists attacked a church led by pastor Gopal Dhurve around 11 a.m., while another mob attacked a nearby house church led by pastor Shyam Lal Khande at around 1 p.m. The Hindu extremists pulled and beat women who sustained injuries.
First Information Reports have been filed in both cases, and the Christians have asked for protection.
"The incidents in Delhi have to be seen as part of a larger picture," said Lal of the EFI's Religious Liberty Commission. "Christians in Bastar, Chhattisgarh have been denied food, beaten up, and Christian worship and activities in the area have been stopped, in more than 50 villages, through frivolous regulations which are essentially ultra vires and contrary to spirit of the constitution of India."
At the same time, he added, Christians in Madhya Pradesh have been attacked, falsely accused and targeted in Anuppur, Indore, Bhopal and Barwani.
"There are also reports from Karnataka, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, where Christians have been targeted," he said. "The happenings in Delhi are simply a continuation of the violence against Christians carried out with impunity by certain groups who are emboldened by the silence of the present government on the issue of violence against minorities."
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