NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – Delhi police manhandled nuns, priests, lay leaders and human rights activists in temporarily detaining nearly 300 Christian protestors on Thursday (Feb. 5), sources said.
More than 1,500 Christians had assembled peacefully at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in New Delhi as part of a protest march against the targeting of churches in Delhi and systematic violence against Christians throughout the country. Church buildings in Delhi were targeted in at least five attacks the past two months.
Sparking the latest protest was a break-in on Monday morning (Feb. 2) at St. Alphonsa’s Church, located in the well-to-do Vasant Kunj area of New Delhi. Unknown persons who broke in stole nothing of value and defiled the Communion host, sources said.
“The consecrated host was desecrated and thrown on the floor – however, three donation boxes with money in them were not touched,” said the Rev. Vijayesh Lal, executive director (designate) of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. “The sacristy that contains sacred vessels and vestments was ransacked. The motive was clearly not robbery. The people who broke in did so with the intention of desecrating the church. It is clear that they wanted to spread communal tension in the capital.”
Police registered only a case of petty theft, ignoring arguments by a local priest and other Christian leaders for other charges such as hurting religious sentiments or hate crime.
Protestors arriving at the Sacred Heart Cathedral early Thursday morning were surprised to find some 200 police officers who had cordoned off the area and placed large metal barriers in front of the building.
A senior police officer reportedly said the protestors were detained on suspicion of unlawful assembly, asserting that they had no permission to assemble there. Christian leaders said they had obtained permission for the protest and march but that police later changed their position, saying demonstrators had permission to protest on the church premise but not to march.
“I was surprised that this was the result of the permission taken from the police the day before the protest march,” Lal said, adding that permission to hold a protest march had been conveyed to the police station at Mandir Marg and its station officer, and that a request for a meeting with the Home Minister had also been submitted on Tuesday (Feb. 4).
As soon as Christians began chanting “We want Justice,” police officers began pulling and manhandling protestors, lifting them up and pushing them onto buses waiting to carry them to the Parliament Road police station, eyewitnesses said. The Christians who were caught were detained for the rest of the day.
“The manhandling and use of brutal force by the police on protestors is highly condemnable and totally unacceptable,” the Rev. Savarimuthu Sankar, spokesperson of the Delhi Archdiocese, told Morning Star News. “The way the police manhandled elderly nuns, priests and people showed the sheer brutality of the Delhi police, and I witnessed every bit of it.”
Lal said the Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, former official spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Delhi, was manhandled.
“He is one of the most recognized faces from the Christian community, and he was dragged badly and pushed onto a bus in a brutal manner,” Lal said. “He later told me that the attack from the police had left him in a lot of pain.”
Dr. John Dayal, member of the National Integration Council and spokesperson for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, told Morning Star News that the rough treatment was a message to Christians from the government.
“The brutalizing of the Christian youth, women and men, many of them nuns and priests, by the Delhi police is symptomatic both of the bigotry and the sadism that seems so seeped into the system,” he said. “The current political dispensation abets it and uses it. It is important to remember that the Christian community had not even started their proposed protest march when the police swooped on them in a pre-emptive strike to stifle their voice.”
Thus far the government has not condemned the harsh treatment or ordered an investigation as demanded by civil society groups who staged a protest on Friday (Feb. 6) in solidarity with the Christian community, he said.
“We told the home minister, Mr. Rajnath Singh, of the manhandling,” Dayal said. “I and Fr. Dominic Emmanuel were among those who were manhandled while being forcibly put into buses to be detained at the Parliament Street police station for the day.”
Intervention of Home Minister
Later a group of Christian leaders who had been detained and released called on the home minister to request his intervention.
“In a meeting that lasted over 40 minutes, the home minister, Mr. Rajnath Singh, listened carefully to the 10-member delegation from the Christian community and their concerns, not only about Delhi but about the situation of Christians in the nation in general,” Lal said.
Singh ordered Delhi police to add to the First Information Report (FIR) on the Feb. 2 incident at St. Alphonsa’s Church sections relating to hurting religious sentiments of a community. Delhi police had treated it only as petty theft.
“Responding to the delegation’s fears that police and administrative apathy was encouraging non-state actors in persecuting the community, Mr. Rajnath Singh did say that the government would not discriminate on the basis of religion, caste or community,” Lal told Morning Star News.
Others present said Singh would ask police to investigate the desecration as a hate crime, but that police believe churches must bear the responsibility of protecting their properties.
Following the meeting with the home minister and the assurances given, the planned protest march was called off with hope that the pledges would be fulfilled.
“I do have faith in the government that due and diligent actions would be taken to protect rights of Christians and every citizen of this country,” Sankar said. “I would certainly wait and see if all the assurances and promises made by the minister are translated into concrete actions and tangible results are achieved.”
Dayal said the desecration of the St. Alphonsa’s Church was the trigger for the protest, but that it was also meant as a cry against impunity enjoyed by police and the administrative apparatus in the matter of violence against religious minorities in various parts of the country.
“They total almost 150 in 2014 – just the ones we were able to document,” Dayal said. “The Hindu, hyper-nationalist, fundamentalist groups that carry out the violence are encouraged by the government’s silence. Politically they believe that [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi has come into power because of their hard work in the run-up to the elections in 2014, and that he is beholden to them and will not take any action against them.”
He added that prime minister and his senior ministers, as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that heads the government alliance, is linked with the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
“Mr. Modi’s silence has to be seen in this backdrop,” Dayal said.
Sankar said the number of attacks on Christians and church buildings has increased after the BJP came to power in May of last year.
“The attacks on churches in Delhi are unprecedented,” he said. “A clear pattern could be seen, as the churches were targeted and attacked after midnight and before daybreak on different directions on the outskirts of the city within a few weeks.”
On Dec. 1, 2014, when St. Sebastian’s Church was gutted by fire, police had initially dismissed it as the result of a short circuit. Following protests on Dec. 1 and 2, the governor of Delhi ordered a Special Investigation Team to probe the incident; a report has yet to be received.
The entire interior of the building was charred. There has been no information on promised police action, Christian leaders said. On Dec. 3, windows were smashed at the Syro Malabar Catholic Church, Jasola, during Mass, leaving glass pieces on the altar. On Jan. 3, at the Church of the Resurrection, Rohini, statues were burned to ashes; police dismissed it as the result of a short circuit.
On Jan. 14, the grotto at Our Lady of Grace, Vikaspuri, was attacked. CCTV captured images of vandals, and police arrested three men who claimed they did it as a drunken prank. In the St. Alphonsa’s break-in on Tuesday, police initially tried to minimize it as “breaking into a residential house.”