MUMBAI, India (UCAN) Ė Christian groups across India protested strongly after Hindu fanatics attacked a Catholic bishop and four priests in a western state. They sought federal help to arrest the perpetrators.
The Indian bishops' conference, several lay groups and a cardinal have condemned the Jan. 29 attack as an incident that shamed India's claims to being a secular nation. They asked the Maharashtra state and federal governments to act against the culprits.
In the attack a group of people shouted slogans and threw stones at Bishop Thomas Dabre of Vasai and the priests, who had gone to Ghosali village to open a hostel. One priest and a person on hand for the program were injured.
Bishop Dabre told UCA News Feb. 1 that police arrested 18 people a day after the incident in Thane district, 1,280 kilometers (about 800 miles) southwest of New Delhi, but released them on bail the same day.
On Feb. 1, diocesan officials and leaders of various religions met Archana Tyagi, the district collector, or top government official in Thane. Earlier, lay groups demanding the arrest of the culprits had approached Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh.
Narrating the incident, Bishop Dabre said he and the priests had gone to the village to open a hostel his diocese built for tribal students.
About 200 people gathered outside the building and shouted slogans like "Christians go back" and "foreign dogs get out." They also verbally abused those attending the program.
Bishop Dabre said he and the priests ignored the shouting, since they did not want to aggravate the situation. The mob appeared to have retreated, but returned later with more people, many of them carrying sticks.
The mob surrounded the building, shouting slogans and effectively trapping the bishop and others inside for almost three hours.
Bishop Dabre, who has initiated several social works projects, said he has never come across such an incident in his 16 years as a bishop. "The situation is now under control," he said.
The spokesperson for the Indian Bishops' conference, Father Babu Joseph, told media in New Delhi that the incident was an example of how fanatical groups continue to intimidate and harass Christian missioners for undertaking welfare programs among the poor.
The "shocking and shameful" incident shows the fanatic groups are active against the church, he said. Certain groups are afraid that the church's works among the poor would destabilize the hold of upper-caste Hindus over India's socioeconomic sectors, the Divine Word priest added.
Condemning the incident, he asked the state and federal governments to initiate steps to arrest the culprits and take measures to ensure that similar incidents are not repeated.
Cardinal Ivan Dias of Bombay issued a statement in which he termed the attack "a barbaric and unwarranted outburst of violence." The incident was "indeed a disgrace to our Indian culture of respect and tolerance, and it sadly reveals a serious lack of a sense of civilized democracy in the politico-religious groups which instigated it," the cardinal said. He added that such events "endanger communal harmony and wreck the secular fabric of our dear motherland." Vasai Diocese was created in 1998 from Bombay archdiocese with Bishop Dabre, who had served as a Bombay auxiliary bishop since 1990, as its first bishop.
Abraham Mathai of the All-India Christian Council and Joseph Dias, president of Catholic Secular Forum, visited the scene of the attack.
Lay leader Dias reported that some people had suspected trouble and informed police about the possibility of an incident three days in advance. "But they did not take any steps to prevent it nor did they arrive on time despite repeated appeals for help," Dias told UCA News. He noted that attackers kept the bishop, priests and others trapped for three hours before police arrived.
Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, who works for human rights in neighboring Gujarat state, charged in a statement that the attack was part of a strategy to create fear among Christians. Hindu groups are organizing a mid-February fair in a tribal area of Gujarat with an explicit anti-Christian agenda such as converting Christian tribal people to Hinduism.
"The strategy of the fascist forces is not to attack any Christian or Christian institution in Gujarat itself for fear that a law-and-order breakdown can severely hamper their whole program" there, Father Prakash said.
John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union, is calling for the federal government to intervene as Christians reel under what he called the "January of terror" by Hindu fanatic groups, thugs and communalized police.
Dayal, who is also a member of the government's National Integration Council, issued a statement appealing to federal Internal Minister Shivraj Patil to "take decisive steps to instill confidence in the Christian community, which is reeling under a combine of violence."
His statement cited attacks on Christians in Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Rajasthan, besides the attack on Bishop Dabre. He said he has a list of about 100 cases of violence against Christians in 2005. Urgent steps are needed to restore confidence and check the violence, he maintained.
Republished by Catholic Online with permission of the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News), the world's largest Asian church news agency (www.ucanews.com).