Catholics Condemn Murder Of Church Worker, Demand Fair Investigation

2006-12-13 00:00:00

Catholics in a southern Indian diocese held a protest march to condemn the killing of a Church worker, allegedly by a right-wing Hindu activist, and to call for a fair investigation of the murder.

More than 5,000 Catholics of Chingleput diocese took part in the Dec. 10 protest march in front of St. Thomas Mount Shrine in Chennai, the Tamil Nadu state capital, 2,100 kilometers south of New Delhi. They wore black ribbons, carried black flags and banners, and denounced the murder of Jacob Fernandez, 58, manager of the shrine´s bookstore.

Salesian Archbishop Malayappan Chinnappa of Madras-Mylapore and Bishop Anthony Neethinathan of Chingleput led the march. Madras is the former name of Chennai. In a joint statement the prelates said the killing pained Christians, and they urged the government to ensure protection for Christian institutions.

The protesters condemned religious fundamentalism and prayed for religious harmony before climbing the hill where the shrine is located. "We are deeply shocked by this murder," said Femina Fernando, one of the marchers.

Father Vincent Chinnadurai, chairperson of Tamil Nadu state´s Minority Commission, told UCA News, "The march was organized to condemn religious fundamentalism and to demand a fair investigation."

"We suspect a sinister plan, and we demand that the police arrest the group behind the incident," Father Chinnadurai said. He added that the attack does not appear to be an isolated incident.

Fernandez was hacked to death with a machete on the evening of Nov. 26 in front of a crowd.

Lilly Mary, who works at the bookstore and was an eyewitness to the killing, told UCA News that the assailant, identified as Ramesh Babu, 37, told Fernandez that Catholics must leave the hill because it belongs to Hindus.

Father Damien Anand, assistant parish priest of the shrine, added that it came to light, after the incident, that Babu had met Fernandez many times earlier and made this same demand.

According to Church officials, St. Thomas Mount belongs to Catholics historically and legally. Locally it is called Parangi Malai, (white man´s hill). Parangi is a derogatory term for "white man."

Mary said that when Fernandez told Babu to see the parish priest, the man brandished the machete and hacked Fernandez continuously in front of a shocked crowd of more than 100 people, including foreign tourists.

After killing Fernandez, Babu smeared some of the blood on his forehead. He then entered the shrine and broke the statues of Saint Joseph and Saint Francis of Assisi, narrated a shocked Mary.

As he broke the statues, blood dripping from the machete splashed around the historic shrine onto venerated relics such as a stone cross said to have been carved by Saint Thomas the Apostle and a picture of the Blessed Mother said to have been painted by Saint Luke.

Police, who arrested the assailant the next day, initially claimed he was in a mentally "unstable state" and that there was no motive for the murder. They also reported that when arrested, Babu screamed at the police saying, "Don´t touch me, I am God." They recovered long swords and sickles from his house.

However, Church officials dismiss this claim. "How can a person who runs a website be mentally unsound?" Father Chinnadurai asked. Babu reportedly ran a website, Meineri means "true faith" in the Tamil language.

He knew what he was doing and he is part of a larger plan to attack Christians, Father Chinnadurai insisted. Local media reported that Babu had placed an advertisement in a local newspaper to recruit volunteers for his right-wing Hindu movement some two weeks before the incident.

The website contains the alleged assailant´s photograph, personal details and hate messages against other faiths. It says he is an engineering graduate and worked for transnational firms before becoming interested in right-wing Hindu ideology.

According to Father Chinnadurai, Fernandez was a "very prayerful" person who never missed morning Mass at the shrine. "His murder was shocking," said the priest, who appointed Fernandez to the manager post when he was the parish priest of the shrine. Fernandez is survived by his wife and three children.

After the demonstration, a delegation from the Minority Commission met the Chennai city police commissioner. They demanded a fair investigation and that the assailant not be regarded as "mentally unsound." The police commissioner reportedly promised the delegation a fair investigation.

St. Thomas Mount, a small hill near Chennai, is believed to be the place where the apostle was killed by a local resident in the first century. Local Church legends claim that the apostle´s body was first kept in the place where the present Santhome Cathedral is built and later moved to Rome.

The late Pope John Paul II visited and prayed at the shrine when he visited India in 1986.


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