MUMBAI, India – A church being vandalized on Dec. 14 in northeastern India was “a shock” according to a local archbishop, who said Christians usually got along well with non-Christians in the locality.
Police arrested two men suspected of damaging a crucifix and statue of Mary in St. Thomas Catholic Church in the village of Chapatoli in the state of Assam.
The state, located in the Himalaya region bordering Bhutan, is 61 percent Hindu with a large minority of Muslims, who make up over a third of the population. Christians make up only 3.7 percent, or around 1.2 million people.
“The present speculation is that it was done by some disgruntled youth just to create a sensation,” Archbishop Thomas Menamparampil told Crux.
Menamparampil is the emeritus Archbishop of Guwahati. The attack took place in the Diocese of Dibrugarh, which is in the Guwahati ecclesiastical province.
“Some connect the incident to the excitement related to the [local elections.] Others put the blame on certain anti-social elements in society that is dead set on providing a painful distraction during the Christmas season, precisely in a region where Christians are in good number,” the archbishop said.
The two men were arrested Saturday morning, after being spotted entering the church on Friday evening. They are both residents of Cahpatoli.
According to the Assam Tribune, thousands of people flocked to the village when news of the incident spread.
The local representative in the state assembly, Terosh Gowala, also arrived at the scene and pledged his solidarity with the local Christian community, promising to pay for the damaged crucifix and Marian statue.
“After the tragedy, the public support from the local community has been edifying,” Menamparampil said.
Gowala is a member of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is in power at both the national level and within Assam state.
Although there has been a rise in anti-Christian acts across India since the BJP took power, relations between faiths in Assam has been relatively good.
“The people irrespective of faith, caste and community have coexisted in peace and harmony in the plantations since pre-independence era,” said Bishop Joseph Aind of Dibrugarh.
Aind said “only outside forces with vested interests can perpetrate such anti-social acts” inside India’s tourist-friendly tea garden area.
“The government must institute a high-level inquiry into the incident and guarantee that the culprits, particularly the mastermind, is booked and punished and that peace is restored in the area. The government must also ensure security for the Christians especially during the Christmas season,” the bishop added.
The church vandalism comes exactly one year to date after a group singing Christmas carols was assaulted in Western India by Hindu nationalists.
In recent years, other groups of Christian carol singers have been attacked by Hindus claiming the carolers were trying to convert people. Other Christian holidays and festivals – especially those involving processions – have also been used as opportunities for Hindu nationalists to attack Christians in India.
Menamparampil told Crux he fears this growing intolerance will become a stronger force in the traditionally more tolerant northeast of the country.
“Many well-informed people say that the right-wing party has clear strategies for the northeast. Many of the inter-tribal conflicts during the last two decades took place during the Christmas season, as though on design,” the archbishop said.
“Last year the Manipur government [Manipur is a state bordering Assam] had kept Christmas as a working day even for the Christians. The order was withdrawn after vigorous protests. And this year, the great bridge over the Brahmaputra will be opened by Prime Minister Modi on Christmas day. Not many are able to give a charitable interpretation to the choice of date,” he said.
(The Brahmaputra is the river running through the northeast region of India. Modi has also declared Dec. 25 to be Good Governance Day in India.)
Menamparampil told Crux “whatever weight one may attach to these interpretations,” the Christians in Dibrugarh are in “no danger.”
“The local society is very much in solidarity with the Christian community that has suffered this humiliation,” he said.