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Church arson reported in India’s strife-torn Manipur state

Adjoining presbytery, boarding school also set ablaze while a nearby convent is 'under the control of outlaws'
Activists of the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) hold placards during a protest amid ongoing ethnic violence in India's northeastern Manipur state, in New Delhi on May 31

Activists of the All Tribal Students Union Manipur (ATSUM) hold placards during a protest amid ongoing ethnic violence in India's northeastern Manipur state, in New Delhi on May 31. (Photo: AFP)

Published: June 05, 2023 09:40 AM GMT
Updated: June 05, 2023 11:58 AM GMT

A more than five decades old Catholic Church, presbytery, and boarding school were burned down, while a convent was taken over by suspected outlaws in riot-hit Manipur state in northeastern India at the weekend, Church officials said.

The fresh wave of violence erupted on June 4 as the federal government appointed a three-member judicial commission to probe ethnic violence in the state that has claimed 98 lives so far and displaced over 45,000 people.

“We were informed that St. Joseph Church, its presbytery, and a school boarding attached to the parish were set on fire and the Franciscan Clarist Congregation (FCC) convent in the parish is currently under the control of outlaws whose identity is not yet established,” a senior diocesan priest from the Archdiocese of Imphal, who did not want to be named, told UCA News on June 5.

St. Joseph Parish at Sugnu, a small township at the southern tip of the Kakching district inhabited by the Meitei and Kuki communities, is one of the oldest Catholic churches in the archdiocese.

Hundreds of houses belonging to Christians in the township were burned down a couple of days before.

“We cannot go to the affected locality to get a ground report due to restrictions, but credible sources informed us about the arson and other developments,” the priest said.

He said the parish has more than 4,000 members from 35 villages in its vicinity, where Christians have abandoned their houses and fled to safer places including relief camps.

“The outlaws set on fire abandoned Christian houses and institutions in an apparent bid to wipe out the community’s existence,” the priest said.

A three-member judicial commission set up in response to the violence will be headed by Ajai Lamba, a former chief justice of Gauhati High Court in Assam state in the northeastern region. The other members will be Himanshu Shekhar Das, a retired bureaucrat, and Aloka Prabhakar, a retired police officer.

The commission is tasked with "looking into the causes and spread of the violence, which have taken place in Manipur [since May 3], and whether there were any lapses on the part of any of the responsible authorities or individuals,” an official notification said.

The commission will be headquartered in Manipur’s capital city Imphal and will be expected to submit a report within six months.

Meanwhile, Archbishop Andrews Thazhath, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI) visited Federal Home Minister Amit Shah on June 4 in Kochi in southern Kerala state and apprised him of the concerns of the Christian community including violence in Manipur.

The CBCI in a press release said: “The meeting was very cordial. The home minister explained his mission in Manipur and the Northeast for peace and it was much appreciated.”

The violence in the northeastern state began in early May when ethnic tribal groups, primarily Christian, protested against a High Court decision granting "Scheduled Tribe" status to the majority Meithei community, most of whom are Hindu.

Traditionally, disadvantaged communities including tribal groups recognized as Scheduled Tribes are guaranteed political representation and other benefits such as in education and employment.

The Meiteis make up 53 percent of Manipur’s population of 3.5 million and control political power and economic resources, while Christians make up 41.29 percent of the people with most of them belonging to poor tribal groups.

Reports said an estimated 260 churches have been gutted, including six Catholic churches and one pastoral training center.

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