MUMBAI, India — City officials in Mumbai, formerly Bombay, have destroyed a century-old roadside cross, despite the strong opposition of the local Catholic community.

The cross was built on or around 1895 in the western Bandra neighborhood of the city.

“The religious structure is constructed on a private property,” said  Godfrey Pimenta, of the Watchdog Foundation.

“The owner of the property had replied to the said notice and met Ughade wherein documentary evidence, including a Revenue Plan/Property Card, was submitted to explain the legal position of the structure,” Pimenta said, “Despite this, the ward officials demolished the structure.”

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Bombay, called the destruction of the cross “deeply disturbing.”

“The concerned [city official] must be held responsible and accountable for the action, which was illegal,” Gracias told Crux.

The cross was removed on April 29, under the provisions of law about religious structures which only applies to those on public property.

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“The Cross was on private property and neither a disturbance nor causing harm and the concerned official went ahead with the demolition in spite of all the documents being submitted within the requisite time,” Gracias said.

Bandra has one of the oldest Catholic communities in the city, and was evangelized by Portuguese Jesuits in the 16th century. When Bombay was handed over to the British in 1661, the area of Bandra remained in Portuguese hands until 1775, and the Jesuits established several parishes in the area.

After the demolition, community members conducted a prayer service at one of these parishes – St. Peter’s Church – which is still operated by the Jesuits. A number of people also went to the Bandra police station to protest the demolition.

The cardinal told Crux these roadside crosses in Mumbai have a religious and historical significance.

“Most of the crosses were built around the time when the plague struck Bombay, back in the 1890s,” Gracias explained, “crosses were erected by Christian villagers to ward off an outbreak of that then raging disease as well as to remember those succumbing to it.”

Bandra – which was its own municipality for much of the 20th century – is now known for these so-called “plague crosses,” which dot city streets and especially the entrances of villages.

The Cardinal said “this is not good for our city and our country. This  action causes communal disharmony and causes deterioration of social and religious integration.”

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Father Anthony Charangat, the editor of The Examiner –  the archdiocesan weekly –  and head of communications for the archdiocese, told Crux the Catholic community “strongly protests” the government’s intrusion into “the private property of a Christian individual who had produced all the legal documents of his ownership of the place to the concerned office,” calling it a violation of his rights.

“They have violated property rights, religious rights, and have created a law and order situation by disturbing peace and harmony between religious communal groups,” Charangat said.

“I feel this was a malicious intent,” he said, adding the authorities seem to be overstepping their authority with the complicity of “elements that are creating total disorder in the country.”

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.

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Christians have felt even more under threat since 2014, when the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took power in the country.  Mumbai is currently under the administration of the Shiv Sena party, an ally of the BJP.

Traditionally, a Cross Feast is celebrated on May 3 in Bandra, and people of all faiths come to light candles and lay flowers at the foot of the cross.

“Crosses today in our multicultural multi-religious, pluralistic Mumbai; they also have cultural and communitarian values as people of all faiths venerate the Cross,” Gracias said. “This demolition of the cross has wounded our religious sentiments and also wounded the sentiments of  believers of other faiths.”