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MUMBAI, India – Officials have destroyed a 20-foot-tall statue of Jesus that has been standing in a village in India for 18 years.

The local administration said the statue was built on land reserved as an animal pasture, and claims its destruction was ordered by the High Court. However, Christian leaders from the region say the case was still pending.

The statue was destroyed on early Tuesday in Gokunte village in Karnataka state, in southwestern India.

“We demolished the statue based on the High Court order. After seven to eight hearings, the High Court had ordered the demolition of the statue as it was constructed on government land. We had issued a notice to the church regarding the demolition. We had to submit the compliance report to the High Court on Wednesday and hence it was demolished,” said a local official.

Father Theres Babu, who is also a lawyer, said that the demolition letter was never shown to them.

“The government has been repeatedly saying that the demolition letter was issued. We have been asking her to show the demolition order. It is not clear if it was a judgement. But [the government official] never showed us the order. She has been claiming that the government advocate has sent her an email, saying that the High Court has given an order and based on that she went ahead and demolished the statue,” Babu told journalists.

The statue was constructed next to Gokunte village’s St Francis Xavier’s Church in 2004. According to the villagers, a few pro-Hindu organization members wanted to create tension in the region and filed a plea in the High Court.

Gokunte village has a population of 500-600 people, and all but four families are Catholic.

A villager named Rayappa told a local television station that 400-500 policemen were involved in the operation.

“We have been praying at the statue since 2004. They did not even listen to us and just removed everything using [mechanical digger],” Rayappa said.

“Despite asking the [local] administration to safely remove the statue and hand it over to us, it was demolished and taken away in a tractor. There were around 14 small structures and an arch was also demolished. We pooled in funds and worked hard to construct it,” he added.

“It is truly a painful moment when a statue of the Lord Jesus is raised to the ground by the authorities of the district administration,” said Redemptorist Father Ivel Mendanha, the provincial superior of the Redemptorists of the Majella V. Province in Mumbai.

“This is not just any statue but a statue of Jesus. The authorities could have shown more understanding, respect, reverence in approaching the religious leaders and asking the leaders to do the necessary deed of removing the statue from the land if it rightly had the court order,” the priest told Crux.

“That this happens in a country that has for centuries revered every religious tradition and its founders is against the fabric of the culture of India. Is this a new India we are witnessing? Is this an isolated act? Or this a deliberate act motivated by certain vested interests? These are pertinent questions that most people ask, especially the Christian community that has long been and will continue to be a community that seeks to live with peace and non-violence and respect to the law of the land, to the diversity of cultures and religions that constitute the fabric of our nation,” he added.

Father Faustine Lobo, the spokesperson of the Karnataka Regional Catholic Bishops’ Council told Matters India the statue was demolished in a “very rude and painful way” and without a proper court order.

“The video of the demolition was widely circulated, and the Christians are really alarmed and pained at such repeated acts by the pro-Hindu government machinery,” he said.

Karnataka is ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has also ruled India since 2014. The BJP is linked with the the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist group.