MUMBAI, India – An over 100-foot high cross was removed from a hill behind a church in southern India by government officials, despite the protests of the parish priest.
The incident happened on Sept. 23 at 6 a.m. in the morning in Gerahalli village in the state of Karnataka, about 40 miles from the state capital, Bangalore. The cross was a hill behind St. Joseph’s parish church.
More than 300 police and officials arrived to remove the giant cross, as well as 14 smaller crosses that were used for celebrations of the Via Crucis.
Father Antony Britto, the parish priest, said he asked for the court order allowing the demolition to take place, and was told he couldn’t see it. The officials also refused his request to allow the crosses to be brought down “honorably.”
“We did not receive any prior intimation about the demolition,” the priest told Crux.
“We have been using the space for more than five decades for praying the Way of the Cross, especially during the Lenten season. Besides Catholics, people from other faith also make a pilgrimage to the top of the hill to pray,” Britto added.
J. A. Kanthraj, the spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Bangalore told Crux that there had been no problems from the government with Hindus using nearby hills.
“We have a history of using the hill for 150 years,” he said. “Every good Friday, the faithful come for prayer – including the non-Christians.”
Kanthraj said these encounters were about “coordination, understanding and harmony,” and there were “no allegations of conversion.”
Just ten days back we submitted an official letter to the district administrative letter to regularize and validate the land in favor of the Church,” he said. Kanthraj blamed the action on an “overzealous administration” trying to please their political masters.
Karnataka is currently ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has also ruled the national government since 2014.
Religious minorities have complained of increased harassment since the party took charge.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of “forced conversion,” and several states of passed anti-conversion laws.
Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore told Crux this is the fourth cross that has been broken or desecrated in the past six months.
“Basically, this is a selective action taken against us in the present atmosphere of intolerance of the minority activities and minority religious sentiments,” he said.
The archbishop admitted the land the crosses were occupying was technically government-owned pastureland, but the crosses were only on a small portion of the land and had been used by the local Christian community for decades.
“However, on the same hillock … there are two Hindu temples, and these temples are not demolished. The Hindu temples are still standing, but only the Christian crosses marking the 14 Stations of the Cross and one huge 32-meter-tall cross has been removed,” Machado said.
“It was being peacefully used by the Christian community for a long time,” he added.
Meanwhile, on the other side of India in the state of Jharkhand, seven Tribal Christians were allegedly beaten and forced to perform a Hindu religious ritual after they were accused of slaughtering a cow, and animal considered sacred in Hinduism.
India’s indigenous Tribal community – along with the low caste Hindus known as Dalits – are the most marginalized in the country.
The seven Christians were “tonsured” – having their hair shaved off, similar to a religious ceremony for Hindu infants – and forced to chant “Jai Shri Ram” (“Victory to Lord Rama”).
The slaughter of cows is illegal in Jharkhand, but minority Christian and Muslim communities are often accused of trading in beef.
Deepak Kullu, 26, a tribal Christian from Bherikudar told India Matters that a group of more than 25 stick and rod-wielding people had entered the village early on Sept. 16.
“I saw them beating a villager, Raj Singh Kullu, and hurling caste-based expletives at his wife Jacqueline Kullu. When I sought an explanation, they started mouthing caste-based expletives at me too and accused us of slaughtering cows,” he said.
“Raj continued to plead that no one had killed any cows. But the mob showed us what seemed a fake video of an elderly man from a neighboring village saying he had seen cows being slaughtered in our village,” Kullu continued.
“The attackers called the local Simdega police station, accusing us of cow slaughter. The police arrived in a few minutes and took us to the police station,” Deepak told the news website.
“The police searched our homes but could not find any trace of cow slaughter and released all of us later in the day. The next day, Jacqueline lodged complaints with Simdega police station and the district SC/ST police station,” he added.
Four men have been arrested in the attack on the seven Christians, and five others have also been accused of participating.
“I do condemn the act of tonsuring the tribal Christians and violation of their fundamental right,” said Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar
“People should not take law into their hands. The law must take its own course. I do appeal to the concerned competent authority to look into the matter and do the needful that victims should get justice and adequate protection,” he told Crux.