Varanasi: "Bombs aimed to destroy inter-faith coexistence"
Fr Nitilal, the leader of around 400,000 Catholics in Varanasi, said: "Yesterday's blasts struck the very heart of Hinduism; I fear a wave of reprisals among Hindu and Muslim extremist factions."
Varanasi (AsiaNews) "I have never seen so much bloodshed caused by such a deplorable action by extremist forces. Now I fear this blood will be exploited to resurrect the old hatred between Muslims and Hindus," said Fr Nitilal. The parish priest of Varanasi was speaking to AsiaNews about the three blasts that rocked this sacred Hindu city yesterday, claiming 23 lives.
The first blast went off at around 6.30pm local time (2pm in Italy) inside the temple of Sankat Mochan, better known as the monkey Shrine (it is dedicated to the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman). At the time of the blast, the temple was crowded with hundreds of worshippers: one of those present said it was a "miracle" that the death toll was relatively low.
The other two blasts went off a few minutes later in a train station, one on the Shiv Ganga Express (which was about to leave for New Delhi a few minutes later) and the second near a waiting room.
Paresh Pandey, an official of the Varanasi police, said 68 people were injured and "35 were in serious condition, nearly all in danger of dying". Alok Sinha, a high-ranking official of the state's Ministry for Internal Affairs, added: "It was a terrorist attack, it has all the characteristics of one. We are not sure about the group involved. The anti-terrorist Special Task Force has started investigations into the matter."
The parish priest said: "People suspect Muslims of being behind the bombings, although we have always managed to live in a climate of inter-religious dialogue and understanding here. Now I fear that extremist factions of both religions will seek to exploit the confusion to ignite a war."
This possible threat was confirmed by Anil Pathak, a local journalist, who told AsiaNews: "The bombs struck the very heart of Hinduism. Without clear and comprehensive proof exonerating the Muslims, violence could erupt again at any time."
Varanasi is one of Hinduism's most sacred sites, with a current population of around 1,700,000 residents, including 400,000 Catholics. According to tradition, this is the favourite dwelling place of the god Shiva, one of the three main deities of the Hindu religion and honoured in the traditional feast of Shivaratri, which came to a close a few days ago. There are around 1,500 temples in the city and there is also a Catholic cathedral. "It is a unique example of eastern and western architecture and is much frequented by Hindu pilgrims, who revere it as a religious site," added the parish priest.
Uttar Pradesh has a particularly high density of Muslims, and a mere 15km away from Varanasi is Sarnath, the place where, according to tradition, Buddha gave his first sermon to five disciples. The symbol of coexistence between Hindus and Muslims is the golden Temple, an ancient Hindu place of prayer, which stands near the Great Mosque. Security measures at these monuments are very strict and entrance into the golden Temple is forbidden to non Hindus. At the moment, soldiers are standing guard at the temple, the mosque and the cathedral.