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Christians Protest Arson Attack On Central Indian Cathedral

9/19/08 JABALPUR, India (UCAN) — Christians in central India have taken to the streets in protest after some people tried to set their cathedral ablaze.

Two unidentified men entered 120-year-old Sts. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Jabalpur, a town in Madhya Pradesh state, and set fire to its altar on the evening of Sept. 18, Father Joseph Christuraj told UCA News. The priest, spokesperson for Jabalpur diocese, said the fire was put out before it could spread to other areas.

Several hours later, in protest, Christians peacefully blocked traffic on a main street in the town, 815 kilometers south of New Delhi. Christian schools there did not open on Sept. 19.

Father Christuraj, quoting an eyewitness, said two young men were seen fleeing the cathedral on a motorcycle as smoke began billowing out of the cathedral. The priest said the arsonists entered the cathedral through a window after breaking the glass pane. The fire damaged altar cloths, the bible, crucifix and the statues of Saints Peter and Paul.

On Sept. 19, Bishop Gerald Almeida of Jabalpur led a delegation to meet state Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. They demanded that he condemn the attack on the cathedral and protect Christians.

The delegation also submitted a list of 56 cases of attacks on Christians in Jabalpur during the past two years and demanded judicial investigations into these incidents.

Talking to the media in Jabalpur afterward, the chief minister condemned the attack on the cathedral and said he was ashamed it happened.

Bishop Almeida told UCA News the incident indeed was “a shameful act,” because the Church “has done no harm to anyone.” He added, “The nasty act of desecrating the place of worship is shameful for the entire city and humanity.”

The prelate said the Church wants the state to arrest the culprits, but he admitted he is skeptical the administration will do so, since no one has been punished for any of the attacks on Christians the past two years.

Although the Indian Constitution guarantees citizens the right to practice and propagate their faith, law-enforcement agencies in the state do not ensure these rights for Christians, Bishop Almeida regretted.

Many men and women gathered in the cathedral after word of the arson spread. They condemned the attack and demanded the government apprehend those responsible.

Michael John, a Catholic who traveled more than 10 kilometers to reach the cathedral upon hearing the news, told UCA News it was “really sad” to see the burnt altar. At the same time, he hoped Catholics would maintain calm and not resort to violent protests.

Jyoti Lazarus, general secretary of the women’s wing of Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasang (Christian grand forum), warned that Christians in the state are “losing our patience.”

Police Superintendent Makrant Deouska told UCA News on Sept. 18 that police have registered a case against “unidentified persons and are investigating the matter.” The state government has since deployed police personnel to most churches in “sensitive” areas.

The Jabalpur cathedral was renovated in 2001, after a 1997 earthquake damaged it.

Church leaders have complained that Christians and their institutions in Madhya Pradesh have been targeted since the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) came to power in the state in December 2003. The BJP, a national party, is seen as the standard-bearer of groups that want to make India a Hindu theocracy.

Of Madhya Pradesh’s 60 million people, 91 percent are Hindus. Catholics and other Christians together form less than 1 percent of the population, but Catholic educational and health institutions are valued. Since the BJP came to power in the state, however, Hindu radical groups have been projecting these institutions as facades for attracting poor people to Christianity.