Catholic Priest Murdered in India as Violence Continues
NEW DELHI, India — Three vicious attacks on Church targets within a week in late August have stunned the Catholic Church in India.
On the morning of Aug. 28, Father Job Chittilappilly was stabbed to death by an unknown assailant in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The 71-year old vicar of Thuruthiparambu Parish in the diocese of Irinjalakuda was saying the rosary on the veranda of his residence prior to celebrating morning Mass when he was stabbed from behind.
Parishioners who came for Mass found the priest dead in a pool of blood, clutching the rosary in his hands.
Six days earlier, two priests of the Kudu parish in the archdiocese of Ranchi in the eastern state of Jharkhand were injured when several masked men stormed into their residence and stabbed them.
Father John Sundar remained in hospital in early September with serious injuries, while Father Alba-nus Tirkey suffered only minor wounds. The priests were saved by the prompt response of neighbors who rushed to the church on hearing the cries of the priests.
And on Aug. 26, Our Lady of Charity Church in Raikia in the eastern state of Orissa was desecrated by Hindu fundamentalists, as police stood by without intervening even after nearby Catholics were assaulted by the Hindu mob.
“What has happened in Kerala and Orissa has shocked us,” said Cardinal Telesphore Toppo of Ranchi, who described the attack on the two priests in his archdiocese as a simple robbery for which the culprits have been arrested.
“It is very unfortunate that such things are happening all over the country,” added Cardinal Toppo, who is president of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India.
Bishop James Pazhayattil of Irinjalakuda told the Register Sept. 2 that the brutal murder of Father Chittilappilly was clearly not motivated by robbery, as the gold chain the priest wore was not taken.
The murder, Bishop Pazhayattil reasoned, was the “handiwork of someone who knew the routine of the priest thoroughly.” The bishop noted that some Hindu militants had threatened the priest recently after a Hindu who used to attend prayer meetings organized by the priest removed Hindu idols from his house.
On Sept. 7, police arrested 25-year-old Panthalkoottam Raghukumar for the murder of Father Chittilappilly, UCA News service reported.
According to UCA News, Raghumakar told police that he stabbed Father Chittilappilly to protest the priest's “anti-Hindu” charitable activities on behalf of Hindu families.
In Orissa, Church leaders report that police commonly turn a blind eye toward anti-Christian violence.
“They broke the main door of the church in the presence of police,” said Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, commenting on the Aug. 26 attack against Our Lady of Charity Church. Bhubaneswar is the state capital of Orissa.
The armed Hindu mob broke the church's door with crowbars and stormed inside after police chased away Catholics who had gathered to protest the removal of protective fencing the church had erected with government permission.
Once inside, the rampaging fundamentalists pulled down and destroyed the tabernacle and crucifix, broke statues and destroyed electrical fittings and furniture.
The mob later turned its fury onto nearby Catholic homes, damaging half a dozen houses and injuring several Catholics, including a journalist.
“What is happening here is nothing but a repeat of their Gujarat experiment,” said Archbishop Cheenath.
In the western state of Gujarat, Christian and Muslim minorities have been at the receiving end of violence since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party took control of the state government in the early 1990s. Under this party's rule, Hindu militants have seldom been prosecuted despite dozens of attacks on churches and mosques.
The wave of unpunished violence reached its peak in the riots of early 2002, which were triggered by the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims. In the ensuing violence, more than 1,000 Muslims were killed in Gujarat.
“The sad part is that even after coming to know of the trouble (in Raikia), the police made no effort to prevent or stop the attack. Instead, they remained spectators,” said Archbishop Cheenath, criticizing inaction by the Orissa police who are under the control of the state's party-led coalition government.
Added the archbishop, “This attack is not an isolated incident. It is part of the uninterrupted indoctrination and orchestrated attacks targeting Christians here.”
Orissa has witnessed dozens of anti-Christian attacks since January 1999 when Australian Baptist missionary Graham Stuart Staines, who had been running a leprosy home in Orissa for decades, was burned alive along with two young sons sleeping with him in their wagon in remote Manoharpur village.
Months later, Father Arul Doss of the Diocese of Balasore was shot with arrows in another remote village. Hindu militant Dara Singh — who has been sentenced to death by the court as the ringleader in Staines' murder — is now facing trial for the murder of Father Doss.
The Indian bishops' conference issued a statement condemning the Orissa church desecration and requesting “respect (for) the beliefs and sentiments of fellow brothers and sisters.” A delegation of Church officials, led by Cardinal Toppo, called on senior party leader Lal Krishna Advani in New Delhi on Aug. 31, urging him to advise the government in Orissa to take action against the recent attacks on Christians.
Those appeals appear to have had little impact. Archbishop Cheenath said that, as of Sept. 2, police had arrested a dozen Christians on flimsy charges while the Hindu culprits in the Aug. 26 attack remained at large.
Said Archbishop Cheenath, “This tells exactly what is going on here.”
Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.
- September 19-25, 2004