Catholics call Assam church attack a hate crime
Church leaders suspect political motive behind string of incidents in northeastern Indian state
Parishioners gather outside St. Thomas Church in Chapatoli, in Dibrugarh diocese on Dec. 15 after being told vandals had attacked their church. (Photo supplied)
Church officials in India want police to conduct a thorough probe into an attack on a Catholic church in Assam, saying it could be part of a plan to create religious-based divisions in the northeastern state ahead of Christmas.
Parishioners of St. Thomas Church in Chapatoli, in Dibrugarh Diocese said they found their church vandalized on Dec. 15.
The church's crucifix, stations of the cross and prayer books were allegedly destroyed, while a Marian statue was removed from its plinth in a grotto and thrown to the floor.
"Somebody did this to destroy a harmonious atmosphere in this area," parish priest Father Cyprian Lakara told ucanews.com.
Nothing like this has happened before at the 88-year-old church, he added.
Despite police arresting two "drunk" men in connection with the vandalism, church officials believe those arrested were scapegoats and that the motive behind the attack was more sinister.
The arrests "appear to be a knee jerk reaction rather than attempt to identify the original culprits," said Father G. P. Amalraj, deputy secretary of regional bishops' council.
Bishop Joseph Aind of Dibrugarh demanded "a high-level inquiry" and said "certain forces with ulterior motives were seeking to sow seeds of hatred" among peace loving people living in the tea garden areas of the state.
Other Christian leaders like him suspect a political motive behind the attack with similar incidents being reported since a pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led coalition came to power in the state in 2016.
"It is a fact there have been other incidents of church desecration in Assam and other northeastern states after the BJP won power," said Bishop Thomas Pullopillil of Bongaigaon who heads the United Christian Forum, an ecumenical group in the northeastern region.
But "we are not quite sure who exactly is behind such attacks."
Christian leaders say Hindu groups see BJP political victories as a cue to push their agenda to make India a Hindu-only nation by isolating and attacking religious minorities like Christians, Muslims and ethnic minorities.
In June 2016, a month after the BJP-led coalition came to power, a man attacked parish priest Father Sushil John Soren with a machete in Udalguri district.
On June 20 this year, unidentified attackers vandalized the Christ, Light of the World Cathedral in Bongaigaon.
On Sept. 29, a Don Bosco statue in front of the Tezpur Bishop's House was attacked and vandalized.
Such "hate attacks" against Christians were rare in the state until three years ago, Bishop Pullopillil said.
"We want the government to identify the real culprits behind such attacks," the bishop said.
Christians make up 3.74 percent of the state's 31 million people, higher than the national average of 2.3 percent.
All three of India's Christian majority states — Nagaland (87.93 percent) Mizoram (87.16 percent), Meghalaya (74.59 percent) — are also in the northeast.
Christian numbers are also considerably high in two other states — Manipur (41.29 percent) and Arunachal Pradesh (30.26 percent).