The attack against the cathedral occurred yesterday around 8.15 pm. Eyewitnesses said they saw three people fleeing the church area on motorbikes at high speed. After that they eventually realised that the building was burning. The fire destroyed the altar, the statues of Sts Peter and Paul, a Bible, missals, crosses and other precious holy items.
This is the third time in two weeks that a church has been set on fire in Madhya Pradesh. The other incidents took place in Ratlam and Indore district. A few days ago a convent of Carmelite nuns was attacked in Banduha.
In these cases police blamed Christians for the attacks even though all the evidence suggests that they are part of a wider anti-Christian campaign led by Hindu extremists that began in Orissa and that is now spreading to other Indian states.
For Fr Davis George, principal of the St. Aloysius College, the Hindu fundamentalist origin of these attacks is confirmed by the fact that “in all these cases members of the Dharm Raksha Sena were involved. Led by Yogesh Agrwal, the members of this group introduced themselves yesterday morning to Father Rocky, the cathedral’s parish priest, and threatened to burn to church, daring him to stop them, if he could.”
As soon as news of the fire spread, at least 3,000 faithful gathered in and around the church, demanding justice, blocking downtown streets.
According to Marko Anthony, joint secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Joint Christian Forum (Madhya Pradesh Isai Mahasang), the “police knows the culprits, but is protecting them. We shall not allow all this.”
Some faithful said that members of the youth wing of this Hindu extremist group came to the cathedral on 31 August to burn the Pope in effigy. Following this incident the local government deployed police agents around churches and convents.
Jabalpur’s bishop, Mgr Gerald Almeida, said he received threats yesterday morning in which extremists vowed to attack other churches. Hence the diocese has decided to close all its institutions.
Some Christians have pointed out that the cathedral attack occurred on the eve of the visit to Jabalpur by Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan who has just started his election campaign (Janashirvad Yatra). Shivraj is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main party of Hindu extremism.
For the Madhya Pradesh Joint Christian Forum the ongoing violence is designed to reunify all nationalist-leaning (Hindutva) groups who want to rid India of every non Hindu minority, Christians and Muslims included.
Prof Joseph D’Souza, president of the All Indian Christian Council, wrote to the president of India as well as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demanding that Sangh Parivar groups behind the violence like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Rashtriya Swayam Sangh and Bajrang Dal be declared “terrorist.”
Tomorrow some 25,000 people are expected to meet in Vijayawada (Andhra Pradesh) in protest against the violence.
In addition to Catholics and Protestants, Muslims, Sikh, moderate Hindus and Buddhists are expected to take part.