Sri Lankan blasts heighten security fears in Goa

Church leaders in Indian state say more must be done to keep ancient churches safe
Sri Lankan blasts heighten security fears in Goa

A file picture of devotees thronging to venerate the mortal remains of St. Francis Xavier at the Basilica of Bom Jesus in Old Goa on Nov. 22, 2014, during an exposition that is held once every 10 years. (IANS photo)

The Sri Lanka terror attacks have spurred India’s Goa state to provide security for its ancient Christian buildings, but church leaders say much more is needed.

A day after a series of explosions killed more than 300 people in churches and hotels in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, Goa’s chief minister said he had asked police to provide security to churches across the former Portuguese colony on India’s western coast.

“Goa needs to take extra precautions,” as the state has some 200 churches, many of them built by the Portuguese in the 16th and 17th centuries, Pramod Sawant told media on April 22.

However, churchgoers and officials say only token security arrangements can be seen, particularly around historical buildings in Old Goa. They include the Basilica of Bom Jesus that houses the mortal remains of 16th century Portuguese-Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier.

“When fears are heightened and the government claims to have tightened security around churches, what is the quality of security provided? Gun-toting cops come for an hour or two and disappear. This is a big joke,” said Rui Ferreira, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception Church in state capital Panjim.

Immaculate Conception was identified as possible terror target in 2008 after 10 Islamic terrorists from Pakistan landed in Mumbai city and killed 165 people in a coordinated shootout. Police claimed terrorists had also targeted other churches in Panjim and beaches and places with lots of tourists.

Goa is India’s most popular beach destination, attracting some six million tourists last year, 578,000 of them foreigners.

Police have increased surveillance of popular beaches with officers on motorcycles patrolling the entire coastal belt.

A police officer who requested anonymity said police have also been checking hotels for suspicious guests and had asked hotels to adhere to strict security checks on guests. Hoteliers have been asked to pass on information about any suspicious activity to police.

Father Patricio Fernandes, rector of the Basilica of Bom Jesus, expressed concern at the security arrangements in Old Goa.

Visitors come in a disorderly manner and saunter around the basilica. “Police do not even help in making them come in a single file. Some people stay inside the compound and loiter in the church,” he said.

The place has reminded safe so far because of “our proactive volunteers,” Father Fernandes said.

“I told them again and again that I needed more security. Some of the personnel who are sent sit down somewhere and relax instead of surveying the area.”

Father Avinash Rebello, parish priest of Holy Spirit Church in Margao, said police were cooperative when security was sought for solemn religious events that attracted crowds in Holy Week.

He said Catholics ought to be vigilant when attending his church, which now has no special security measures.

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Nandakumar Kamat, a progressive Hindu writer, said in a social media message that Goa's full security paradigm has changed because Islamic State terrorists have declared Christians as targets.

If they aim at Christian pockets in southern India such as Kerala and Goa, “it’s going to be extremely difficult to prevent the attacks because no security agency can easily prevent fanatical suicide bombers," he said.

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