Goa (AsiaNews) "Security problems" and Hindu fundamentalism are preventing Catholics from Goa and Karwar from celebrating today's annual Feast of Our Lady of Springs (Nossa Senhora das Brotas).
The Navy Command is banning the ritual procession "for security reasons because warships are in the vicinity of the church".
Fr Peter Machado, judicial vicar of the diocese of Karwar where the Church is located, told AsiaNews that the Navy's explanation "is just a lame excuse". For all intents and purposes, "this year we have been denied the right to worship in a church which belongs to our ancestors," he said.
The ancient Church of Our Lady of Springs is situated on Anjediva Island off India's western coast, facing the city of Goa, a former Portuguese colony and important Catholic centre.
The church is owned by the government and administered by the Indian Navy which is building military installations all around it.
In July 2004, Rear Admiral S Sinha, Flag Office commanding Goa Area announced the removal of restrictions for the Feast.
Behind the alleged security considerations for the arrival of many faithful in a military zone lies the problem of religious fundamentalism.
Hindu activists are opposed to the Christian presence claiming the island for themselves. Some activists of the Hindu fundamentalist group Vishwa Hindu Parishad have threatened to interfere with Catholic celebrations on Anjediva claiming the right to worship there on the grounds that prior to the arrival of the colonisers there was a temple dedicated to the Hindu deity Arya Durga which was then moved to Ankola in Karnataka.
For Father Machado, the question is sensitive and could cause social tensions. "When a place of worship becomes an object of contention, the situation puts at risk the law and order of society".
"When the church and the surrounding property were appropriated by the government of India to build a Naval Base, the Catholic Church was assured that Christians could visit the Church on Feast Days. Today it does not allow it".
The Feast of Our Lady of Springs is celebrated on February 2. It usually involves a solemn mass for some 1,500 pilgrims. "Pilgrims travel by boats [. . .] decorated with flags of different colours [. . .]. The entire atmosphere is festive," Father Machado said..
John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union and member of the National Integration Council, asked Oscar Fernandes, Minister for the state of Goa, to ensure that both central and local governments agree to the celebrations on Anjediva Island.
In the meantime, Father Machado still hopes that despite today's restrictions Christians "will be granted permission for the Feast of St Francis of Assisi on 4th October".
In addition to the main church, the island is also home to smaller church dedicated to the Saint from Assisi and is a destination for pilgrimage.