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MUMBAI – Catholic priests and laity in Daman, located on India’s western coast near Mumbai, are challenging a decision by the local government, led by a party with links to right-wing Hindu nationalists, to destroy a 400-year-old Catholic chapel in order to expand a nearby athletic field.
Earlier this week, Catholics delivered a memorandum to local authorities opposing the destruction of the Chapel of Our Lady of Angustias, a Portuguese word that translates as “anxieties.” It was built by a Portuguese governor in the 17th century, and is located adjacent to the Moti Daman Football Ground, a popular venue for soccer and cricket games.
A municipal official said the expansion of the football ground, recommended by an architectural firm hired to promote redevelopment, is intended to introduce other sports to the facility, such as badminton and boxing, and to attract regional and national tournaments.
Municipality President Sonal Patel told reporters that Catholic concerns will be taken into consideration.
“Local Catholic leaders, including priests, had submitted letters to us,” he said. “We assured them their consent should be taken first. In the coming days, land acquisition department officials will visit the spot and talk to the priest and leaders.”
Patel also told local media that the land upon which the chapel sits, and where the expansion is planned, belongs to the municipality.
Daman’s local government is led by the BJP, the political party of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It’s considered the political wing of the RSS, a social and cultural movement premised on Hindu nationalism.
Critics claim that the rise of the BJP since Modi’s election in 2014 has made life increasingly difficult for India’s religious minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Buddhists.
Father Anselmo D’Souza, Mission Superior of the Mission of Daman and a spokesperson for the group defending the chapel, said Catholics plan to resist.
“People are surely disturbed because this is a 400-year-old chapel,” he said. “We have responded that we are not happy, and we will not give the land and the chapel for this.
“We have approximately 600 people who reside around the chapel,” D’Souza said. “In the month of September people come for novenas from other areas like Silvassa to worship. Our feast is celebrated in September. People pray for consolation and solace in times of difficulty and anguish, because angustias means ‘where the light is.’”
“There’s a devotion to Our Lady of the Light,” D’Souza said. “Peoples of all faiths come to the chapel.”
D’Souza expressed hope that local officials will respond to the concerns.
“We are positive that the government authorities will take into cognizance our views and understand the sentiments expressed in the letter, and hopefully will not go ahead with acquisition of the land and the heritage religious monument,” he said, quoting a letter the group deposited with local officials.
Father Brian Rodrigues, who offers Mass and other sacraments at the chapel, said that if the planned destruction isn’t rescinded, Catholics may file an appeal with the High Court in Mumbai.
Jawhar Sircar, a member of the Upper House of Parliament, tweeted out his support for the opposition.
‘Stop highly insensitive politicians, bureaucrats of Daman from demolishing this 500-year-old historic Church of Our Lady of Augustus for a football field. It’s exquisite carvings represent India’s craft traditions. Heritage is not Catholic or Hindu — it’s the soul of India.”
According to the web site “Incredible India,” the chapel is “a fine specimen of wooden architecture and craft of Portuguese artists.”
“Rose petals of various colors adorn the church and the walls are decorated with paintings, depicting the lives of holy saints,” the site says. “The sight of a gold-plated altar with intricate designs is the major attraction of the church.”