IMPHAL, India — Despite being under attack in the bloody ethnic conflict in Manipur state in northeast India, the local Catholic Church has been carrying out relief work to hundreds of displaced persons sheltering in churches, schools and other centers.
Amid an escalation of violence over the weekend that claimed more than four dozen lives, mostly in army operations and ethnic clashes across the state, a Catholic youth was among those killed in a clash between the region’s majority Meiteis, who are mostly Hindus, and tribal Christians in the state’s Churuchandpur district.
Though Christians account for 41% of the state’s 3.86 million people, Catholics number only about 100,000 of them, mostly spread out in remote areas.
Adding to the local Church’s hardships, a Catholic village in the township of Sugunu was gutted along with the village’s church — one of the oldest parishes in Manipur — over the weekend.
“Over 150 houses have been completely burned down, and priests and nuns [in the parish] have been moved out to a safer destination,” a church worker told the Register May 30, amid increasing fears among local Catholics.
Despite these tensions, St. Francis de Sales School in the hill district of Kangpokpi remained a center of relief activity.
“First, we distributed the relief supplies provided by the archdiocese, our own congregation and other networks,” Fransalian Missionary Father Roy Moothedom told the Register.
“Now, we have got a heavy truck load of 24 tons of food and other relief material. Surveys of beneficiaries were being finalized to distribute these among those in remote villages, besides the schools around Kangpokpi sheltering hundreds of displaced families,” Father Moothedom added.
In fact, during a visit to these relief camps a week earlier, temporary kitchens already were being set up in school compounds to feed the families sheltered in empty classrooms.
With no entertainment facilities available in the skeleton camps, the children were seen playing badminton innovatively with their sandals, displaying resilience to cope despite the trying times.
With the state crippled by the bloody ethnic conflict since May 3, extended curfews and internet shutdowns have paralyzed normal day-to-day life. Amid acute shortages of essential supplies, people not directly affected by the violence also have been flocking to the church centers pleading for staple foods like rice and other items.
Three more truckloads of relief material are on the way to the Church in the state, which is enclosed from neighboring states by high mountains.
“Caritas India and Catholic Relief Service staff are assisting us in the relief work,” Father Varghese Velickagam, who is coordinating the relief work for the Archdiocese of Imphal, told the Register. Father Velickagam is the archdiocese’s vicar general.
“Our biggest challenge now is to get medical staff. Some of the staff in our hospitals left due to fear during this ethnic conflict. We also need doctors and other medical staff to attend to those in the [relief] camps and in the villages,” Father Valickagam noted.
The emotional trauma of those in the relief camps was manifest during a visit to the camp located at the sprawling Don Bosco parish in Churuchandpur, nearly 50 miles south of Manipur’s capital city of Imphal.
A 15-year-old Christian boy exhibited a particularly dazed look, among the 150 displaced Christians there. The reason: Two his cousins had been hacked to death while he was in the school hostel. Afterwards, army officials moved the boy to the Catholic camp at Churuchandpur, a heartland of tribal Christians.
Dominic Munluo, a retired government official who is active in running the relief camp as secretary of the Churuchandpur unit of the All Manipur Catholic Association, recounted the amazing survival of David Liansianguan, a 22-year-old Catholic.
The poor laborer, eking out a life of hardship in Imphal, was beaten savagely with clubs and iron rods on May 4, when the ethnic conflict broke out. Government officials presumed him to be dead, and he was sent to the mortuary of a government hospital. But a nurse noticed he was breathing; and, with the intervention of a Christian official, he was moved out of Imphal and rushed to Churuchandpur.
When this correspondent accompanied Munluo to the local hospital to meet the fortunate youth who had defeated death, he had been taken for a surgery from his hospital bed. However, Munluo reported afterward that “David is okay now and has been discharged from hospital.”
Father Isaac Honsan, parish priest of the burned-out St. Paul’s Church and the director of the burnt pastoral training center located in the same campus near Imphal’s airport, is yet to recover from the shock he experienced personally.
“I can never forget that experience of witnessing the church go up in flames,” Father Honsan told the Register during a visit to the charred buildings.
“The memory of desecration of the church, breaking of the statues, altar and the huge crucifix before my eyes will haunt me,” said the priest, who was forced to watch the desecration and torching of his church over May 3 and 4, as police never responded to his repeated pleas for help.
“Though we are lucky that our cathedral is not harmed, a lot of our people have fled,” said Father Lijo Ennamplasseril, vicar of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Imphal.
Following the outbreak of the ethnic violence, two villages of Christians, including dozens of tribal Catholics near the cathedral, have moved to safe locations, Father Ennamplasseril noted.
According to news reports, more than 10,000 tribals have been moved out of the state due to the conflict.
A government official who requested anonymity recounted how he fled with his family from Imphal to a relief camp in Guwahati, the capital of the nearby state of Assam.
After a Meitei mob attacked their tribal village near the residence of the state chief minister, the local Christians initially took shelter in the nearby army camp. The soldiers moved them to safer areas the next day before they were transferred out of the state entirely.
Said the official, “We do not know what is our future and what to do next, as the violence continues, and I cannot go back to join my government job.”