With Orissa still reeling, violence in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh shocks believers.
NEW DELHI, September 8 (Compass Direct News) – Still reeling from violence in Orissa state, India’s Christians suffered major blows in two other states over the weekend.
As the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) revised its estimate of deaths from the last two weeks of violence in Orissa state from “more than 100” to 53 today, Christians in Ratlam, Madhya Pradesh were shocked when suspected Hindu extremists yesterday burned down the 86-year-old St. Bartholomew Church of North India.
Christian leaders said suspected members of the Bajrang Dal and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) burned down the venerable church after parishioners had elaborately decorated it for its 86th anniversary. VHP members are also responsible for ongoing violence in Orissa state following the killing of a state VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23.
Thousands of houses, churches and institutions have been damaged or destroyed in the violence that began after VHP members led a funeral procession of Saraswati’s body to stir up anti-Christian sentiment. Maoists have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.
Damages to the St. Bartholomew church building in Ratlam were estimated at US$18,000. It was the only English-language church in the district, with most of its members senior citizens and retired railway employees.
VHP and Bajrang Dal leaders have denied the allegations against them, claiming the church building caught fire due to a short circuit. But local Christians said a short circuit could not have led to a fire of the more than five hours needed to burn down the entire structure.
“The entire episode was planned and carried out by the VHP and Bajrang Dal,” Lalu Stephen, district president of the Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasangh, an umbrella body of Christian organizations, said in a statement. “We have no doubt about their involvement in the entire episode.”
The investigating officer in Ratlam, Manish Agarwal, said police are investigating the church building fire and do not know whether the VHP or Bajrang Dal are involved.
Christians were further stunned when police presented the watchman of the church, Noel Pare, before media late at night accepting blame for the crime. The mother of the watchman, Rosy Pare, subsequently stated in an affidavit that her son, daughter-in-law and grandchild were sleeping at home when the incident took place.
She further said in the legal document that it was police who woke Noel Pare to inform him that the church was on fire. Pare, along with his wife, was taken to the police station for questioning, with his wife later released. After a few hours, local Christian leaders were called to the police station to be told that the watchman had accepted responsibility for the crime.
Rosy Pare claimed that police concocted the scheme to protect the real culprits.
Father Anand Muttungal of the Madhya Pradesh Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the conference will set up an independent committee headed by a retired High Court judge to include journalists, social activists and leaders from various religions to investigate.
“The members will be declared soon,” he said. “Police are trying to save the culprits and put the blame on the Christian community. We will not tolerate this attempt by the police.”
According to the police’s own report, at least 200 liters of kerosene were used to burn the church building.
“It cannot be the work of one man only,” Fr. Muttungal told Compass. “Clearly the police are trying to hide the facts here. The arrest of the church watchman is an attempt to malign the community. Every time it is done, and this time it was planned.”
Hindu extremists have a history of violence in the area. Most recently, on August 15, VHP and Bajrang Dal members attacked a youth meeting in Ratlam after a neighbor complained, said pastor Jose Mathew of Ratlam.
“They beat up many participants,” including a pastor, his wife and the district manager of World Vision, Mathew said. “Later the police without any enquiry charged them with attempted forcible conversion.”
In Chhattisgarh state, on Friday (September 5) about 20 Bajrang Dal extremists boarded a train at the Durgh railway station and took four babies 1 to 2 months old from two nuns of the Missionaries of Charity and from two women helpers. Subsequently the Hindu extremists beat a nun and a driver sent to help.
The nuns and two women helpers on the train were taking the babies from Raipur to the Shishu Bhava charity center in Bhopal when the Hindu extremists forced their way into the train shouting anti-Christian slogans. Christian sources said the extremists snatched the babies and left the train, with the nuns compelled to come after them.
Accusing the nuns of forced conversion, the Hindu extremist mob handed them over to the Government Railway Police (GRP). When one of the two sisters, identified as Sister Mamta, requested that she be allowed to make a phone call to get legal help, police flatly refused. After much pleading she was able to make a phone call to the archbishop from the mobile phone of a visiting officer.
The archbishop promptly sent two nuns in an ambulance along with a driver to the Durgh railway station to assist the nuns. But before they could reach the station, they were sighted and surrounded by the Bajrang Dal mob outside the railway station.
One of the arriving nuns, identified as Sister Laboure, and the driver of the ambulance were mercilessly beaten in public view by the mob. The Hindu extremists continued to shout anti-Christian slogans even as they were beating and threatening to kill the nun and driver.
Subsequently the GRP took the two arriving nuns and the driver into custody, and they were kept in the police station for five hours, with the wounds and other injuries of Sister Laboure and the driver unattended. The next morning police escorted the nuns to their respective convents. Reportedly Sister Laboure was later admitted in a hospital for treatment of her injuries.
The babies were not returned to the nuns but rather taken to a government hospital, where they remained at press time.
Fr. Muttungal said local newspaper Hari Bhoomi later covered the incident of the beating “and used very derogatory language, which is quite insensitive.”
In Orissa state, the GCIC confirmed that on August 25 VHP extremists killed three Christians at a place known as Jarginaju: Pastor Fitham Nayak, 62; Madan Nayak, 62; and Nathura Nayak, 60. The GCIC reported that before killing them, the Hindu extremists asked them to reconvert to Hinduism, killing them when they refused.
In Karnataka state, Christians leaders reported that about 30 attackers on motorcycles and in an SUV stormed into a church served yesterday and abducted pastor R. Babu.
After disrupting the service in Mulbagal, Kolar district by tearing up Bibles, hymnals and curtains and beating church members, the attackers carried Pastor Babu to a temple about five kilometers (three miles) away and forced him to observe Hindu rituals.
They released him only after he gave a written declaration in front of the police at Mulbagal police station stating that he would not go back to the village or continue any church activities.
Report from Compass Direct News