12/07/2005, 00.00
INDIA

Two arrested for desecrating Catholic church

Nirmala Carvalho

The police consider the suspects to be mere thieves. The diocese believes the attack was perpetrated to generate communal tension in the lead-up to Christmas. A prayer march is slated for 9 December in Calcutta.

Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Some Hindu youth have desecrated a Catholic church in West Bengal – a state in eastern India – in what seems to be an act of reprisal against local priests, aimed at creating tension in the lead-up to Christmas. The police have already arrested two people however they have only charged them with theft. The forces of order continue to deny greater security to religious buildings, as requested by local Christians.

On 3 December, in the village of Jalakhali – Nadia district – a group of six men entered the Catholic Church of St Louis. They tore out pages in a lectionary relating to Christmas rites and burnt them. They also broke the chest next to the pulpit and later took away the silver crown from the statue of Mary and the rosary around the statue's neck; they went into the sacristy, and took the particles of the host and burnt them.

Jalakhali is part of the diocese of Krishnagar; the population is mostly made up of Hindus and Muslims; Catholic families number around 80.

"This is a very grave matter," said Bishop Joseph Suren Gomes in an exclusive comment for AsiaNews. "Only sacred things were targeted. This clearly is a case of revenge against the Church." Samir Stephen Lahiri, Public Relations Coordinator, Krishnagar Diocese, shared the bishop's view: "This was not just a case of burglary because the amplifier and many other valuables were left untouched." According to Lahir, the attack was carried out by some local "youth" who "wanted to scare the church authorities, particularly Fr Anthony Kariyattil, who had launched a campaign against some of their activities."

Fr Kariyattil said that "during Puja (the greatest Hindu festival in Calcutta), some local youths used to get drunk and trespass into the church compound. They often teased girls in the village. I tried to put a stop to all this. I went and spoke to the local panchayat (village council) and sought the members' co-operation." The priest said he also reported the cases to the police more than once but to no avail.

Fr Shubas Baroi, secretary of Mgr Suren Gomes, said the attack was planned with the aim of creating tension within the community in the Christmas period.

Meanwhile, police today arrested two people in relation with Saturday's incident. The local judicial authorities said Basudev Mondal and Nanda Biswas confessed to having entered the church only to steal. "They had no intention of burning the Bible," said Rajesh Pande, the District Magistrate. The police have therefore opened a case against the two men for mere theft, justifying the vandalism of the sacred books by saying the thieves needed light to see inside the dark church.

The local community of the Bangiyo Christiyo Parisheba – an organisation bringing together all Christian denominations – submitted a memorandum to the district magistrate and the police superintendent, calling for immediate measures to protect the Christian minority in Jalakhali zone, so they may be able to spend Christmas without fear.

R. Rajshakharan, Nadia police superintendent, said it was "impossible to set up police surveillance for each church, we don't have that much strength."

The Bangiyo Christiyo Parisheba has organised a prayer march for 9 December in Calcutta. Hundreds of people are expected to turn up, to call on the West Bengal government to give them more protection.

The 3 December attack calls to mind a serious incident which took place in 2002, also in Krishnagarun diocese. On the night of 24 December as group of 40 masked and armed men broke into Maliapota church and robbed 1,200 faithful participating in the Mass. They also beat up a priest.

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