Hindu extremists suspected in area known for anti-Christian violence.

NEW DELHI, August 3 (Compass Direct News) – The suspicious death of a 39-year-old priest in the southern state of Karnataka has further terrified Christians living in an area known for anti-Christian violence, but police indicate that they doubt it is a homicide.

The body of the parish priest of St. Mary’s Church, the Rev. James Mukalel was found lying near his motorbike on a remote roadside in Belthangady sub-district near Mangalore early last Thursday (July 30). After family members reportedly sought a second autopsy that delayed interment, the priest’s body was buried on Saturday (July 25) with the cause of death still unsolved.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) maintains that Mukalel, from Belthangady’s Syro-Malabar diocese in Karnataka’s Dakshina Kannada district, was killed.

“According to Fr. Joseph Valiaparambil, vicar general and spokesperson of the diocese of Belthangady, the death of the priest appears to be suspicious and unnatural,” officials at CBCI said in a statement, “as his body was found lying on the roadside near the motorbike which he was riding, and there were no clothes on his body.”

Alluding to Hindu nationalist extremists, the CBCI affirmed that “such killers represent no religious community but only a section which promotes the cult of violence, whose inhuman acts only further widen the gap between religious communities, thus aggravating the agony of the even larger human family.”

The Catholic Church demanded that the alleged killers be brought to justice, but police said Mukalel may have died from food poisoning. Superintendent of Police of Dakshina Kannada district Subramayeshwar Rao told Compass that police had only two theories on the cause of death.

“Although I have not seen the autopsy report, I learned from the forensic surgeons that Fr. James Mukalel died of poisoning – most likely naturally because of food poisoning, or he was poisoned.”

There were no external marks of injury or signs of suffocation, Rao added. The diocesan social work director had reportedly said there were signs of suffocation on the body.

Asked why Mukalel’s body was found nearly naked, Rao said only that Mukalel had vomited and passed a stool before his death.

“The body was found without any clothes, with only underwear, which had been pulled down the legs,” Rao said. “I don’t know why some people are thinking like that [that he was killed and for religious reasons].”

The Karnataka-based Global Council of Indian Christians has demanded an inquiry by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation.

Two Autopsies

Mukalel, from Kannur district in the neighboring state of Kerala, was recently assigned to St. Mary’s Church.

According to the CBCI, Mukalel was killed as he returned to his parish in the Kutrupady area after attending the funeral of a parish priest in the adjacent Charmadi village around 9 p.m. on Wednesday (July 29).

On Friday (July 31) the priest’s body was taken to Government Wenlock Hospital in Mangalore, district headquarters of Dakshina Kannada district, after which the Catholic Church sent the body for last rites to St. Sebastian’s Church in Vellad, in Kerala state’s Kannur district.

A funeral service was held at St. Sebastian’s Church on Saturday (Aug. 1), but the body was not buried. It was instead taken to the Government Medical College at Kozhikode in Kerala for another autopsy because Mukalel’s parents and brother, along with other close relatives, felt it was not a natural death, Indo-Asian News Service reported.

Police official Rao said he had not been apprised of a second autopsy. “I heard about it in the news,” he said. “There is no legal provision for a second autopsy.”

Reports of the two autopsies were awaited at press time. The case, registered as a suspicious unnatural death under Section 174 C of Criminal Procedure Code, will be processed only after autopsy reports are completed.

Past Attacks

The minority Muslim and Christian communities have faced numerous attacks in Dakshina Kannada district in general and in Mangalore in particular.

Most recently, The Hindu reported that on the evening of May 16, the day general election results were announced, a group of people celebrating the victory of Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate Nalin Kumar Kateel from Dakshina Kannada attacked four Muslim families with sticks, soda bottles, cricket bats and cycle chains in the Nettrakere area in the Bantwal area in Mangalore.

In August-September of last year, at least 28 attacks on churches were reported in Dakshina Kannada district, mainly in Mangalore. According to a report by the People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL), in every case, the attackers were from Hindu nationalist extremist groups like the Bajrang Dal, the Hindu Jagaran Vedike or the Sri Rama Sene.

The attacks were seen as fallout from violence in Kandhamal district in the eastern state of Orissa, where Maoists on Aug. 23 killed a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or the VHP, whose youth wing is the Bajrang Dal), Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, for which Christians were wrongly blamed.

In Karnataka, Hindu nationalists also based their violence on alleged conversions of Hindus to Christianity and to protest a booklet, which they said was “derogatory” to Hindu gods, published by a Christian group, New Life Fellowship Trust.

Mangalore police were also suspected of having played a role in the attacks.

“What was striking about these attacks, especially in Mangalore, is that the police acted in tandem with the Bajrang Dal,” said the PUCL report, entitled, “From Kandhamal to Karavali: The Ugly Face of Sangh Parivar” released in March.

“The pattern we observed was that the Bajrang Dal would attack Christian places and cause injury to persons and damage to property,” according to the report. “Then the police would step in, not to chase and arrest the assailants, but ostensibly to prevent any violent retaliation by the Christians. And in the course of the alleged preventive activity, they would assault the Christians further.”

A report by the National Minorities Commission also said that in the first week of the attacks on churches, police arrested more Christians, 47, than extremists from the Bajrang Dal, 36.

Karnataka is ruled by the BJP, which came to power for the first time in the state in alliance with a regional party, the Janata Dal Secular, in February 2006. In May 2008, it won the state assembly elections and became the one-party ruler of the state.

Report from Compass Direct News 


More attacks launched in Orissa and Karnataka; Orissa archbishop threatened with death.

NEW DELHI, September 19 (Compass Direct News) – After three weeks of widespread attacks on Christians and their property in Orissa state and other parts of the country, the federal government finally warned two states that their failure to prevent violence could lead to the imposition of “President’s Rule.”

As more incidents of violence were reported from Orissa and the southern state of Karnataka yesterday, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issued an official warning to the two states under Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported. The article requires state governments to function with due respect to constitutional provisions, setting up a potential showdown between the federal UPA, led by the Congress Party (Indian National Congress), and Orissa and Karnataka states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is the largest opposition party at the federal level. The UPA also said it was keeping a close watch on the activities of Hindu extremist groups, including the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), which is allegedly behind the ongoing violence, reported Press Trust of India.

The governments of the two states under the scanner suspected political motives behind the federal government’s move. The BJP today dared the federal government to impose President’s Rule in Karnataka.

“We dare the Centre to go a step ahead and implement Article 356 [empowering the federal government to impose emergency rule],” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told IANS. “They will have to bear the consequences and the people of the country would give them a fitting reply.”

The Christian community, however, saw a ray of hope in the federal government’s move. Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the federal government’s warning has brought “at least some consolation” to the country’s Christian community, which forms 2.3 percent of the total population.

The violence began following the assassination of a VHP leader and icon of Hindu nationalism, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Orissa’s Kandhamal district on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.


New Attacks in Orissa

Incidents of violence continued in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. Mobs burned down two prayer houses on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Mundigarh and Lankagarh areas under Tumudibandh police station in Kandhamal, reported The Indian Express daily.

“The district administration foiled another attempt by the troublemakers to set afire the Phiringia police station last night,” the newspaper reported. “Both roads to the town, Phulbani-Phiringia and Gochhapada-Phiringia, were blocked by felling of trees.”

The administration, however, learned of the plan, cleared the blockade and moved security forces to the town.

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath received a death threat.

“Just last week I received a chilling letter from Hindu groups which said ‘blood for blood, life for life.’ What can I do?” Cheenath said yesterday while at the Catholic Bishop Conference of India office in Delhi, according to IANS.

The letter stated that the archbishop, who has been staying in Bhubaneswar for three decades and whose house was stoned a few days ago, would be killed if he returned to Orissa. “They [Hindu groups] threatened to kill me,” he said. “Is this how civilized society behaves?”

Archbishop Cheenath, Delhi’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Father Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Church in India, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday to apprise him of unabated violence in Orissa.

“Despite your consoling words and assurances, the violence still continues in some parts of Kandhamal,” they said in a memorandum, which carried a list of violent incidents that took place in Kandhamal after Sept. 11, when the Orissa state government told the Supreme Court of India that normalcy was returning in the district.

“Looting, arson and vandalism continue,” said the memorandum. “Security forces are mainly in the towns, main roads and are not moving to the interior parts of Kandhamal. Crimes are being freely committed by the culprits with impunity.”

Forced conversions from Christianity to Hinduism are continuing in the villages of Orissa, the memo said. “Christians are forced under threat of death, burning of their houses, or death of their relatives. After conversion, they have to burn their Bibles, religious articles and their own house, to prove that they are genuine Hindus. All other Hindu ceremonies are imposed on them.”


More Assaults in Karnataka

Attacks continued also in Karnataka. According to New Delhi-based Asian News International news agency, unidentified people launched attacks in three districts of the state on Wednesday (Sept. 17).

While a mob destroyed Bibles and other Christian literature and vandalized furniture the St. George Church in Ujire area of the Dakshina Kannada district, another group of people pelted a statue of the Virgin Mary with stones outside the St. Mary’s Church in Kolar district. Yet another group of people damaged furniture at a church in Chikamagalur district.

Hindu extremists in Karnataka began targeting Christians after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

Attacks on churches were reported from several parts of the state on consecutive Sundays following Aug. 29. The Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, which were mostly aimed at churches of the New Life Fellowship ministry.

The Karnataka state government today announced a probe by a retired judge of the high court into anti-Christian attacks, reported IANS.

Earlier this week, there were incidents of violent attacks on Christians and their institutions also in the southern states of Kerala, the north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand state in the east.


Tensions in National Capital

On Wednesday (Sept. 17), a group of unidentified people believed to be Hindu extremists sought to create tensions in the national capital Delhi.

A mob forcibly took possession of a lawn in front of a Catholic church, God’s Light Church, in Trilokpuri area in East Delhi, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

“The mob broke open an outside gate to the lawn as well as the inside gate leading from the church and threatened to construct a temple there,” EFI reported. “They have also locked the outside gate to the lawn/garden as well as the inside gate leading from the church to the lawn.”

The church building has been in the area since 1991.

“It is a well planned move to create a confrontation with the church in Delhi too after the incidents in the states of Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala,” EFI reported. “The miscreants have resorted to this step to gauge the reaction of the church before doing anything further.”

Supporters of the VHP also tried to harass a Christian institution in the neighboring state of Haryana.

The Rev. Madhu Chandra of the AICC said some VHP extremists filed a complaint with Hisar district authorities against a school run by the North India Christian Mission for closing the school “illegally” on Aug. 29, the day all Christian schools remained closed to protest violence in Orissa. The complaint, filed in Barwala town, also accused school personnel of “converting” students and people of the area, as if conversion were illegal in India.

The AICC will hold a rally in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh tomorrow (Sept. 20) to urge the governments of affected states to arrest those responsible for the anti-Christian violence.

Dr. John Dayal, AICC secretary general, returned from Orissa yesterday and warned that the situation in the country was getting “out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News