MUMBAI, India — Police arrested 22 people when a crowd of villagers vandalized a Catholic prayer hall in southern India.
Over 100 people were involved in the attack on Sunday at the Fatima Mata Center in Godhumakunta, located in the Indian state of Telengana.
The building had just been consecrated a week earlier by the Archbishop of Hyderabad, Thumma Bala, during the centenary celebrations for Our Lady of Fatima.
After the attack, Bala sent an official request to the Home Minister asking that the building be repaired, and for the authorities to take action against the perpetrators.
“This act of desecration, vandalism, and also of breaking of the statues has deeply wounded the religious sentiments of the Catholic community,” the archbishop told Crux.
“We will conduct a service of reparation, after the police have concluded their investigations,” he said.
For some time, the roughly 30 million Christians in India, about half of whom are Catholic, have suffered various forms of intimidation and harassment, including physical violence, instigated by Hindu nationalist groups.
The latest violence took place after villagers met with local officials before attacking the building and destroying the statues inside.
The mob claimed the center was built illegally, but police say the violence may have been related to a land dispute.
Bala said the archdiocese has applied for permission to have a church, and that permission is still pending.
“Until the permission arrives, it is being used as a multi-purpose prayer hall,” the archbishop said.
The state of Telangana is 85 percent Hindu, and Christians only make up just over 1 percent of the population.
Hindu nationalists often accuse Christians of using coercion to convert lower-caste Hindus.
“I assured the Police that the Catholic community is a peace-loving community, and we do not go around converting people,” Bala said.
“If anyone wants to be admitted into the Catholic Church, there is a rigorous process of around 2 years, where the candidate is thoroughly investigated and scrutinized and has to give a legal affidavit,” – the archbishop continued – “The Catholic Church is a peace-loving Church, a Church which serves all sections of society, irrespective of caste and creed. Our health and education and welfare apostolate are without any discrimination which serves nation building.”
Since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in the country, Christians have worried that the nation’s secular nature is under threat.
Telangana state is under the rule of a local party, which has at times been allied at the national level to the secular Indian National Congress. Officials have charged several members of the mob with crimes related to the attack.
“We are very appreciative of the prompt action taken by the state and police in apprehending those involved in the destruction of Fatima Mata Center,” Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops’ of India, told Crux.
“It is regrettable that misguided elements – who erroneously sow seeds of divisiveness and suspicion – carried out this intentional act of desecration on the prayer hall,” Gracias continued.
“This is not good for peace, harmony, and national integration. India is a mosaic of different religions and cultures.”