In the run up to the 2015 Delhi Assembly elections which resulted in a historic mandate for the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), as many as five churches in the national capital reported incidents of desecration and arson. The attacks on the churches coincided with the decision of the central government to observe "Good Governance Day" on Christmas day last year as a tribute to former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. This move attracted widespread condemnation and resistance from the Christian community with National Council for Churches in India issuing a statement accusing the government of "showing scant respect to the holy day of the Christians - Christmas."
During his trip to India in January this year, US President Barack Obama stated, "India will succeed as long as it is not splintered on religious lines." Shortly thereafter, the Christian community in Delhi held a protest against attacks on churches on February 5, two days before Delhi went to polls on February 7. The protesters planned to march from Gole Dal Khana to Union home minister Rajnath Singh's residence but were detained midway and taken into preventive custody near the Sacred Heart Cathedral.
A week after the BJP's humiliating defeat in the Delhi Assembly elections in which the party could manage only three seats, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke out at a function organised by Christians in New Delhi to celebrate the sainthood of Father Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia. "My government will not allow the any religious group, belonging to the majority or minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions," Modi told the gathering at Vigyan Bhawan.
He added, "We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence." While the Delhi Police initially described the attacks on churches as "routine break-ins aimed at petty theft", Union finance minster Arun Jaitley said in April that "we have found all these incidents were law and order problems. Not a single case was carried out by the majority community, nor was it of political nature or communal."
However, nearly 12 months after successive church attacks in Delhi, the mystery still remains. Near the Rajiv Gandhi Super Speciality Hospital in Dilshad Garden is the St Sebastian Church which was burnt down on the night of December 2, 2014. The church shares its boundaries with a Hindu temple with another church on the other side. In front of the church is a cemetery with a large idol of Lord Shiva at its entrance. Repair work is underway at the church with burnt walls of the interiors yet to be fixed. Broken ceiling fans hang from the blackened ceiling. "We have been working here since quite a few months now but I think it will take us at least one year to rebuild the church," says a labourer involved in repair work.
Worshippers have been gathering for the daily evening mass held at 6pm. Since the church is far from being fully repaired, worshippers avail of the community hall built next to church. After having led a modest gathering of 25-30 people in praying to Jesus, Father Paria says, "We are finding it difficult. Today, there were less people but (on) other days it is filled. On Sundays we don't have space. We are putting chairs everywhere and trying to manage till the church is ready."
Refusing to believe the theory that the church was gutted down as a result of short circuit, Father Paria says, "It is not at all (a case of short circuit). The balcony and sanctuary situated inside the church are quite far. There were special keyboards kept in the balcony which also got burned. It is impossible that these many things got burned because of the short circuit." He added that what he heard was that in the run up to the "elections" some "miscreants" poured kerosene oil inside and burnt the church to disturb communal amity. "We (priests) stay in a flat because we don't have any rooms to stay here. As a result, we do not know what exactly happened. Still investigation is going on so we do not know what the final result is. It's a mystery for us."
Similar confusion persists at St Alphonsa's Church, several kilometres away from Dilshad Garden in the Vasant Kunj area of south Delhi. Some unidentified men reportedly ransacked sacred objects inside the church between 1am to 3am on February 2. "When I came to clean the church and make preparation for the morning mass I saw the door open. The lock had been broken. I entered and found the holy sacrament desecrated," says Dilip, a cleaner at the St Alphonsa's Church since five years.
In spite of the early morning desecration, the church went ahead with the morning mass on that fateful day. "The worshippers advised us to inform the police and we passed on the message to the authorities. The police came and so did politicians and media persons. The forensic team came after two hours and took the fingerprints of everyone living inside the church," says Ivan, co-pastor at St Alphonsa's Church.
"We cannot say whether it was a hate crime. What intention was in the mind of the attacker? Maybe theft. It was the time of elections," he adds. However, pastor Ivan points out that if the intention was theft then why didn't the attacker(s) touch the offering boxes in which money was kept. "The monstrance (holy vessel) was missing and the sacred objects in the adjacent room had also been vandalised," he says. Unfortunately, CCTV cameras were not installed in the church at the time of the attack as a result of which no visual evidence exists in relation to the incident.
To probe into the attack the government set up a special investigation team (SIT) which visited the church in October. Pastor Ivan reasons that "things have simmered down now" and the "outcome is positive". Appreciating the Delhi Police, he says, "Since the day of the attack, the police have been posted here. They conduct regular patrolling. It is the responsibility of the police to investigate properly and scientifically. We will not stop praying to Jesus. Such attacks encourage you even more."
But such optimism is not shared by Father Cyril Patrick at Church of Resurrection in Rohini. On January 3, a crib kept at the boundary wall of the Church of Resurrection caught fire after a burning substance was allegedly thrown in from outside the church premises. The police claim that it was a case of short circuit, an argument accepted by a lower court, but Father Patrick differs. "They (police) have taken all the stuff from the crib and taken it for further investigation. We have sort of lost the case in the lower court and the proof they have given us is that the materials which we have used in the crib were Chinese. They were not good quality materials so there was a short circuit and they got burnt." He added, "But what we are saying now is that they could have replaced the materials which were in the crib with an inferior crib, with inferior material."
Father Patrick maintains that peace has prevailed in the locality despite the incident. He states that the Catholic community knows that "they will try to persecute us" but "we will stand against it". "We are fighting this case because the prestige of the Catholic community is at stake. I am not very keen about it because I know ultimately we are going to lose it and we are spending a lot of money on only this case."
Refusing to draw parallels between the Delhi elections and church attacks, Father Patrick believes the mischief of setting ablaze the crib, which is representative of the cowshed where Jesus was born, was the work of some anti-social elements.
"There may be some people threatening the Catholics because they believe we are converting people which we are not doing. To get converted to Catholicism is not an easy thing and we normally discourage people from conversion. Even if anyone has to be converted and expresses his/her desire, s/he would have to attend classes in the church every week."
Besides that, the person converting also has to file an affidavit to the authorities stating s/he is converting out of his/her own free will and not under pressure.
With investigations still on, the debate concerning the attacks on Delhi's churches starting in December last year is far from over. While most political parties came out strongly against church attacks, the BJP which happens to be the ruling party at the Centre that controls the Delhi Police, seemed to downplay the incidents. The Delhi Police was approached to comment on the subject but they refused to entertain our queries.