MUMBAI – Prayers and protest marches by India’s small but socially influential Catholic community were staged across the country July 2 in response to ongoing violence against Christians in the country’s northeastern state of Manipur.
Called by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, the protests highlighted that more than 100 people, largely Christians, have been killed so far in Manipur, with the carnage unfolding just ahead of the August anniversary of an anti-Christian pogrom in 2008 in the state of Orissa.
The conflict pits the largely Hindu Meitei ethnic group against the mostly Protestant Christian Kuki people, each of which represents roughly forty percent of the state’s population of four million, but the Meitei enjoy the support of regional and national political forces dominated by the Hindu nationalist BJP party of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Since the violence began on May 3, estimates are that some 50,000 displaced persons are now living in 300 refugee camps, though with larger numbers expelled from their homes and villages who haven’t moved to any formal settlements. Over 5,000 structures, including churches and private Christian homes, have been burned, and some local observers claim that as many as 120 people have died.
A June 22 message from Archbishop Andrews Thazhath of Trichur, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, urged all archbishops, bishops, priests, deacons, religious, catechists and laity to join the July 2 protests.
“More than 50,000 people have been displaced, rendered homeless and are suffering in various relief camps and private residences. Many people have left the city. Lots of people have fled Imphal and the state for safer localities,” Thazhath’s statement read.
As part of the protests, Eucharistic adoration and prayers were held in parishes followed by candlelight processions. Human chains were formed, and demonstrations were staged with black flags in which large numbers of clergy, religious and lay faithful participated. In a few dioceses people of other faiths also joined the protests.
In the Archdiocese of Pondicherry, Christians protesting the atrocities in Manipur were themselves subject to detention by the police, with a complaint filed against twenty demonstrators, including several priests, for allegedly causing a disturbance on a public road.
Father Devasagaya Raj of the Pondicherry archdiocese, who is a former secretary of the Office of Scheduled Caste for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told Crux that local police had initially denied permission for a march, then given oral permission only to later arrest participants for following the route they’d indicated.
Meanwhile incidents of violence continued in Manipur, with at least four people killed on the day of the protests, including one case where police said the victim had been beheaded.
“There is a complete collapse of the constitutional machinery in the state,” said Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal, Manipur. “There is fear, uncertainty and a general sense of hopelessness and desperation.”
Lumon cited a series of issues that had been building, including deforestation, poppy cultivation funded by rich outsiders, and labeling of Kuki Christians as poppy cultivators or immigrants from Myanmar. He noted that internet connectivity has been shut down and media platforms disabled. He also said although confirmed deaths were more than 100, the total is more than officially published.
“Two communities are warring, but it has affected all the people of Manipur. … With the complexity of issues that has given rise to this situation, there seems to be no clear-cut reason for the present crisis,” he said.
Lumon also questioned the role of security forces, wondering why in all cases, state forces were unable to prevent “things from running amuck for prolonged time.” He said in some cases, police stood by and watched as mobs attacked.
“Why is it that vulnerable places, even after attempted attacks, were left unguarded?” he asked.
Lumon compared the situation to 2002 riots in Gujarat state and 2008 anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district of Odisha state. He said officials use “narratives like ‘war against drugs’” or “fight against illegal migrants from Myanmar,” but “in the midst of this orchestrated propaganda, subtle attacks on Christianity seem to have found a clean and unsuspecting space.”
Lumon listed 10 Catholic churches and institutions attacked by mobs, noting that “many churches belonging to Meitei Christians” have also been burned.
“The number of attacks on churches that had nothing to do with the conflict indicates the strong and active involvement of some fanatical groups on the pretext of preserving Meitei customs, cultures, tradition and indigenous religion,” the archbishop said.
Lumon said some of the attacks seemed well planned and “smacked of fanatic elements out to disrupt the existence of Christianity.”
Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry, part of India’s Syro-Malabar Church in communion with Rome, has charged that the violence in Manipur amounts to “ethnic cleansing of Christians” and challenged Modi to defend his claim during a recent meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden that there is no religious discrimination in India.
“When such ethnic cleansing is happening in our country, our prime minister told the American Congress that there is absolutely no discrimination in India,” Pamplany said June 28.
“Honorable prime minister, we have to ask you this: Can you keep your hand on your chest and tell the suffering Christians of Manipur that there is no religious discrimination in this country?” he asked.