Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry equated the sectarian violence in the northeastern state to the 2002 Gujarat riots
The remains of a burnt church are seen in Langching village some 45 km from Imphal, the capital city of Manipur on May 31. The ongoing ethnic violence has kept India's northeastern state on the edge since May 3. (Photo by AFP)
An Indian Catholic Archbishop has termed the ongoing sectarian violence in northeastern Manipur state “ethnic-cleansing of Christians” and criticized the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government for its failure to restore peace after nearly two months and more than 130 deaths.
Indicating a marked departure from the Eastern rite Syro-Malabar Church’s earlier stand toward India's ruling party, Archbishop Joseph Pamplany of Tellicherry said the ongoing violence in Manipur is “ethnic-cleansing of Christians” who make up 41.29 percent of the hilly state’s 3.2 million people.
The prelate, in one of the strongest criticisms of the BJP from any Church leader in India, equated the sectarian violence in Manipur to the 2002 riots in the western Gujarat state, where some 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was its chief minister.
In an official release from the Syro-Malabar Church on June 30, Archbishop Pamplany from the southern Kerala state dared Modi to repeat his claim in the US during a press conference with President Joe Biden that “there was no religious discrimination in India.”
“When such ethnic cleansing is happening in our country, our prime minister told the American Congress that there is absolutely no discrimination in India,” Pamplany told a solidarity meeting in Kannur, in Kerala, on June 28.
“Honourable prime minister, we have to ask you this: can you keep your hand on your chest and tell the suffering Christians of Manipur that there is no religious discrimination in this country?” he added
The Syro-Malabar Church was seen as hobnobbing with the pro-Hindu party ahead of the 2024 national elections while ignoring its agenda of turning India into a theocratic Hindu nation.
Archbishop Pamplany had courted controversy in March after he offered the BJP help to win a parliamentary seat from Kerala in exchange for increasing the rubber prices to Rs. 300 (US$4) for a kilogram. Syrian Christians in Kerala are mostly farmers, a majority of them engaged in rubber cultivation.
Pamplany had drawn criticism from within the Church and outside for his remarks.
Amid the rising persecution of Christians and Muslims, Cardinal George Alencherry, head of the Syro-Malabar Church, too, had given a clean chit to the BJP, saying Christians do not feel insecure under its rule in the country.
Cardinal Alencherry made the controversial statement in an interview published by The New Indian Express on April 9.
Many influential BJP leaders have met Eastern rite bishops as part of an outreach program to woo Syrian Christians in the tiny state with 18 percent Christians out of its 33 million population.
Their bonhomie had invited criticism from within the Church as Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore along with other Christian groups had filed a petition in the country's top court seeking direction to end the persecution of Christians.
The latest U-turn by Archbishop Pamplany has won the hearts of the worst critics of the Syro-Malabar Church leadership.
Shaiju Antony, a leader of the Archdiocesan Movement for Transparency (ATM) in Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese, lauded the prelate for his stand.
The ATM has locked horns with the Church over a decades-old liturgy dispute, but its lay Catholic leader in a video message on June 30 said: “At least now, the Syro-Malabar Church leadership understood the reality in Manipur and responded positively.”
Antony welcomed it as "a laudable step” and added: "It is better to be late than never.”
Manipur is gripped by violence and bloodshed since May 3.
Tribal groups, comprising mainly Christians, are fighting against the majority Meitei Hindu community opposing the Meitei demand for inclusion in the Scheduled Tribe category to avail benefits of the reservation quota under India’s affirmative action plan.
Christian leaders say some 50,000 Kuki people are displaced and live in some 300 relief camps, and they get little support from the state administration, headed by the BJP.
Many have taken shelter in the forest and close to 300 churches have been set on fire.
The violence has claimed more than 130 lives, but a realistic head count could increase the number considerably, Church leaders said.
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