MUMBAI – A Catholic priest who faced a police complaint for a social media post protesting recent anti-Christian violence in the Indian state of Manipur committed suicide on Sept. 13, with his body found hanging from a tree in a cemetery.
A spokesman for the Diocese of Sagar in India announced the death of Father Anil Francis in a statement to the press Friday, saying, “We are extremely pained and sad over the death of Fr. Anil Francis, who was known for his commitment to the works given to him and dedicated to the values preached by him.”
According to the statement, Francis’s death is under police investigation and the diocese is cooperating fully. It also noted that in a suicide note, Francis had requested that his body be cremated.
Francis, 40 at the time of his death, was ordained to the priesthood in April 2013. The statement indicated he had arrived at the bishop’s house in Sagar on the evening of Sept. 13 for a prayer meeting the next day.
The suicide came shortly after Francis had posted an image to social media depicting a woman wrapped in the colors of the Indian flag being held by two men, with a mob behind them, with the text, “Wounded Manipur: 2 women paraded naked, gang-raped, not none arrested since two months. We are ashamed. When will peace prevail? Pray for Manipur.”
The reference in the post was to ongoing violence in the northeastern state of Manipur, where ethnic clashes have taken on a religious dimension since the minority Christian presence in the region has been especially targeted. According to reports, more than 120 Christians have been killed amid the violence over the last three months, with 4,500 buildings and homes belonging to Christians and roughly 400 churches destroyed.
In July, a video showing two Christian women who belong to the Kuki ethnic group being paraded naked on a public road and molested by a mob of men on May 4 sparked wide outrage when it went viral on social media, reflected in Francis’s post.
Local media reports suggest that Francis was a convert to Catholicism as a teenager, and that his family remains Hindu and lives in a village within the Sagar district where he served as the head of a church-run primary school.
Sagar is located in the state of Madhya Pradesh, also in northeastern India, where Christians have complained of harassment and persecution since the adoption of a sweeping anti-conversion law in 2021 by the state’s government, which is led by the right-wing Hindu BJP party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
At the moment, a Catholic bishop and nun are facing prosecution in Madhya Pradesh following surprise inspections at a church-run orphanage, where discovery of Bibles on the premises led to charges of conversion. The Indian bishops’ conference issued a statement denying the accusations, insisting that the “age-old ‘bogey of conversion’ has no basis and has been brought up repeatedly to tarnish the selfless and dedicated service of thousands of priests, religious and lay people.”
Observers believe that the police complaint against Francis may be related to this broader context of anti-Christian pressures in the state.
“We realize that Fr. AniI Francis was under tension and pressure over an FIR lodged against him over a post he had shared on Manipur violence on social media,” the diocese said in its statement, referring to the police complaint.
On the other hand, church officials also stressed that they can’t yet confirm the motives for Francis’s suicide.
“We do not know what made him take such an extreme step,” said Bishop James Athikalam of Sagar.
Athikalam told Crux that Francis’s family had been invited to the bishops’s house, “where we expressed our pain and anguish and sorrow and comforted them and consoled them and showed them a great appreciation of the work he had done.”
“After the post mortem, when we received the body, we had a prayer for the office of the dead in the hospital itself before handing over the body to the relatives,” Athikalam said. “We, the priests, sisters and people had a requiem Mass at 3.00 p.m. In my homily I gave an appreciation of his work and asked people to continue to pray for his soul.”
Athikalam said that after the body is cremated, in accord with Francis’s wishes, the diocese hopes to have the ashes interred in the church’s cemetery.