The Dhalit Catholic community in the village of Sogandi was holding a liturgy for the Passion of the Lord April 14 when they were disrupted by the Tehsildar – local tax and revenue officers – as well as police during the Veneration of the Cross and distribution of Holy Communion.
“The Catholic Church in India is very distressed and saddened by the happenings in Sogandi, Tamil Nadu, on Good Friday, a day very sacred to Christians everywhere,” the April 19 press release stated.
“The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India expresses its full solidarity with the people of Sogandi and condemns in very strong terms the brutal action of the Tehsildar.”
The statement, signed by the secretary general of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, SFX, said that they are proud of their country and the major part of the Hindu community has always treated them with respect and goodwill.
However, recently, fundamentalist forces have disturbed “the traditional peace and harmony” of the country, they said.
The bishops expressed concern at rising intolerance in India toward people of all religions from “fundamentalist fringe” groups, calling on the government to ensure that everyone in the country continue to feel safe and “enjoy the basic right to worship freely and without fear.”
Concern about religious intolerance has grown across India particularly since the May 2014 election of Narendra Modi as prime minister, which saw a spike in the number of attacks against Christians and Muslims.
After Modi took office the country saw a sharp rise in attacks against people and property, most of them perpetrated by the radical Hindu group Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, also referred to as the RSS, or the “the Sangh.”
The group, which has been described as “fundamentalist” and “violent,” sits on the right-wing and has no official, legal registration in India. However they maintain strong ties with India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.
Modi has been criticized for his silence regarding the mostly small-scale attacks, which have continued to take place.
The event in Sogandi on Good Friday was only the latest in a string of escalating anti-Christian incidents in the village, Bishop A. Neethinathan of Chingleput wrote in a report April 19.
The Catholic parish there, under the patronage of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus, was erected in 2007. It has 125 families, who also make up the population of the village.
In order to help foster strong Marian devotion, when the parish was built 10 years ago, the priest also developed a portion of a nearby hill into a little grotto with a covering and a statue of Our Lady.
The grotto and other public religious symbols have been at the center of the clashes between the Christian village and a nearby Hindu village, also of a different caste identity. The Hindu village is known to have temples and houses erected on the other side of the same hill, Bishop Neethinathan stated.
On April 14, the parish gathered at the grotto at 3 PM to celebrate the Lord’s Passion service. Many police were stationed around the area throughout the service, the bishop’s report states.
As the service continued, the local Tehsildar disrupted the Veneration of the Cross and the distribution of Holy Communion, not allowing them to finish.
The disturbance and subsequent disorder resulted in reactions from some of those present. Most of the local men, as well as some priests, have been booked for serious offences by the police, Bishop Neethinathan wrote.
The following day, April 15, the revenue department bulldozed large ditches around the area, preventing access.
It is believed that the recent incidents are the result of planned and systematic operations by anti-Christian Hindutva and anti-Dhalit caste fundamentalists, including pressure on the police and revenue departments.
Other recent actions include the demolition and removal from the hill Dec. 31, 2016 of many of the statues and crosses of the parish by more than 500 police officers “under the pretext of illegal occupation,” according to Bishop Neethinathan. The statues were not returned until April 19.
In February, every stone and boulder on the hill was found marked with the Hindu symbol and the Palm Sunday procession, though able to conclude, was also interrupted by objections and disturbances.