MUMBAI, India – A bishop in India is calling for justice after Hindu radicals desecrated a Catholic cemetery in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.
Eight people have been arrested over the vandalism, which took place in the town of Udayarpatti during the night between Oct. 17-18.
“The miscreants broke the compound wall, entered our cemetery, where we have around 100 graves,” said Bishop Antonysamy Savarimuthu of Palayamkottai.
“These miscreants used crowbars to damage the structures and damage 40 graves. They also broke and vandalised the crosses and statues of Mother Mary, broke the granite and marble gravestones, cross and statues and desecrated and damaged 40 graves,” he told Crux.
“It was a meticulously pre-planned and calculated act of desecration and vandalism, which has deeply wounded our religious sentiments. The cemetery is a holy place, and we were sad, grieved and shocked,” the bishop said.
Savarimuthu said the damage was noticed by parishioners on Sunday morning, who informed the parish priest of Sacred Heart Church.
“The people protested on Sunday and blocked the road and expressed our protest of this this grave and serious act by road blockade stir on Sunday,” the bishop told Crux.
The bishop is demanding the culprits be charged under the Goonda Act, which is meant to counter hired gang members. He is also calling for financial compensation and assurances that such vandalism will not happen in the future.
The cemetery land was purchased by the Church in 1982 and is adjacent to two other cemeteries, belonging to a local Dalit community and the Assemblies of God denomination. There have been no previous incidents at the cemetery.
“The attack on the cemetery shows a flagrant disregard and disrespect for the dead and their families,” said Mervyn Thomas, the president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a human rights organization.
“We are encouraged that the local police authority has acted quickly in this matter and urge them to ensure that the other perpetrators who remain at large are apprehended and held accountable for their actions,” Thomas said in a statement.
“We urge local media to adhere to industry best practice on responsible and accurate reporting, particularly where it concerns religious intolerance and may inflame communal tensions. Finally, we encourage the authorities to ensure that the Christian community is adequately compensated, and that the damage to the cemetery is repaired immediately,” he said.
The mention of “local media” is in reference to the local newspaper Dinamalar, which CSW reported published an Oct. 12 story alleging that there is a 100-year-old Hindu temple in the vicinity of the cemeteries, which may have inflamed local opposition to the Christian cemeteries in the area.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled India since 2014, has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
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.
Nehemiah Christie, a human rights activist based in Tamil Nadu, told CSW that the Hindu Munnani – a Tamil Nadu-based nationalist organization – was behind the vandalism.
“The Hindu Munnami with the backing of the RSS and the central government is looking for every opportunity to instill fear in religious minorities, even if its through disgraceful tactics such as the incident in Tirunelveli,” Christie said.
“From carrying out crimes against members of the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes, to registering falsified criminal charges against journalists, lawyers, activists, academics, religious leaders, and emboldening thugs to intimidate, harass and beat-up people, there is a systemic agenda to dismantle India’s constitution and push for a Hindu Rashtra (nation),” he added.