2000-12-15 00:00:00

An Indian court has banned a Protestant bishop from entering the area of a disputed chapel in a ruling the bishop says was politically motivated to harass Christians.

The sessions court of Gujarat state´s Surat town told Bishop Ezra Sargunam of the Evangelical Church of India (ECI) Dec. 15 that he could enter Vyara subdivision, where a controversial ECI chapel exists, only with written permission from the court.

Bishop Sargunam, vice chairman of the Minorities Commission of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, said he left Gujarat after state authorities refused to meet him.

An ownership row over the ECI chapel in Chindia village, 1,250 kilometers southwest of New Delhi, made headlines after the bishop began a fast to the death to protest alleged desecration of the chapel by Hindu extremists.

Hindus groups disassociated themselves from the desecration but claimed that the chapel land belongs to a local tribal, Puniyabhai Ukadia, who donated the land for a church after he became a Christian.

Ukadia has since "reconverted" to Hinduism, reclaimed the land and installed photos of Hindu gods and goddesses, the Hindu groups claim.

However, the bishop and other Christians say some 400 people ransacked and desecrated the chapel that the ECI spent 200,000 rupees (US$4,278) to build.

The bishop also claims that documents prove the ECI received the land as a donation from a landlord and that Ukadia was only a tenant.

Bishop Sargunam told media that instead of arresting the vandals who demolished the chapel, Gujarat´s pro-Hindu government has filed charges against the Christians.

He said he was also charged for creating communal trouble after the hunger strike affected his health and led to his hospitalization.

The Protestant bishop told UCA News that he had to leave the area because of the state government´s partisan approach toward Christians. Anti-Christian attacks in Gujarat are "State-sponsored vandalism," he said.

More than 100 attacks against Christians have been reported in Gujarat in the last two years.

Bishop Sargunam had insisted on meeting the state chief minister, saying he would not return to Tamil Nadu until peace was restored and justice done to Christians in Chindia.

However, the state home minister said the bishop would not be allowed to meet the chief minister and urged him to "leave the place" immediately.

"There is no dearth of Christian leaders in Gujarat that they have to bring one from outside," the minister said.

The state maintains that the Chindia incident is a personal property dispute and that Christian organizations are attempting to "malign the image of state and central governments."

Meanwhile, Christian leaders in Vyara told UCA News Dec. 14 that the situation has "normalized."

It is "a deceptive calm, but Christians are not frightened. The damage has already been done," said Navneed Gamit, a Pentecostal pastor. Christian youths take turns to guard their houses and places of worship at night, he added.

Local Hindu activist Rattan Sonara said the disputed land belonged to a Parsee who donated it to the Kotvaliya tribe, whose members cultivated it.

According to Sonara, the land changed hands many times before Ukadia used his "converted (Hindu) connections" to alter records and show him as the owner. Ukadia was "lured" to Hinduism six months ago with monetary incentives, he added.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (world Hindu council) activists who allegedly led the desecration said they are determined to turn the chapel into a Hindu temple.

"This is the sentiment of the majority of the people," said one of them, Prahladbhai Rathod. "Any other land will not do."


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