MUMBAI, India – India’s Catholic leader has expressed condolences and offered the use of Church-run hospitals and clinics after a stampede in the northern part of the country during a Hindu procession left at least 24 people dead and dozens injured.
According to the Times of India, the disaster occurred when a rumor swept through the crowd that a bridge along the procession route was about to collapse. Organizers of the event on Saturday reportedly had sought permission only for about 5,000 people to take part, but almost one million people actually turned out.
The procession was designed to promote vegetarianism and a prohibition on alcohol, and was organized by followers of Jai Gurudev, a famed Hindu holy man who died in 2012 at the unconfirmed age of 116.
The incident occurred near the Indian city of Varanasi, located in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, as followers of Jai Gurudev were processing to a village on the banks of the Ganges river to take part in a two-day camp.
Senior police officials and administration rushed to the spot immediately to carry out rescue and relief operations.
A government spokesperson said the administration is keeping a close watch on the situation, and all necessary measures are being taken to assist the injured. The official also added that an inquiry will be instituted to determine the cause of the stampede.
Police official Daljit Chaudhary said the incident took place as people were brought to the camp in large numbers, whereas permission was sought only for a limited number of people.
“One person died of suffocation because of the surging crowd on the narrow bridge,” he said. “This led to rumors which resulted in the stampede,” Chaudhary said, adding that the number of casualties may rise as time goes on.
Speaking on behalf of India’s Catholic bishops, Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai expressed condolences.
“The Church in India is deeply saddened by the tragic loss of life at the stampede at Varanasi this afternoon, and our condolences go out to those injured and affected by this tragedy,” Gracias said.
Gracias, who’s also a member of Pope Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers from around the world, also vowed that Catholic facilities will be opened to assist those in need.
“The Church in India makes available all our Church-run hospitals, dispensaries and medical clinics, and will provide all medical aid to the hundreds of injured,” he said.
The Catholic Church in India has a special connection and bond with the city of Varanasi, since it was at St. Mary’s Cathedral there that in February 2015 Indian Catholics celebrated the 50th year of Nostra Aetate, the declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Church’s relations with non-Christian religions.
Organized by the Catholic Church, the interfaith gathering in Varanasi two years ago brought together Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and Jain spiritual leaders to “celebrate religious diversity to promote a world of peace and love.”
“Sadly today, this ancient city is filled with cries of suffering and mourning, and the Church in India is in solidarity with their sufferings,” Gracias said.
The Mumbai cardinal said that on Sunday the Church in India was already planning to observe a special Day of Prayer for the nation.
“I assure the people of my spiritual closeness, and I will offer special prayers for Varanasi and the people who perished, for those who are injured and affected in this tragedy, and for the relief efforts underway,” Gracias said.