Inter-religious violence has broken out in the Punjab after Christians protested a disrespectful depiction of Jesus, according to word received from Bp. Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy, Bishop of the Diocese of Amritsar in the Church of North India. The bishop, whose diocese includes Amritsar, the holy city of the Sikhs, its immediate Punjab environs, and the states of Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, sent the following notice out on Saturday, Feb. 20:
Following the protests by Christians against display of Jesus Christ holding a cigarette and a beer can in Shillong, Epiphany Church in Batala, Diocese of Amritsar, has been attacked by religious fundamentalists.
It was one of the most beautiful historic churches, built in the Mughal style in 1893. The lock was broken open and the church was vandalized. The altar, pulpit and beautifully carved wooden furniture are burned down.
This is the first incident of such kind in the region of Punjab. I would not be surprised if this is the handiwork of the right-wing fundamental groups. The reason behind this is possibly the fact that the Hindu right-wing political parties were losing popularity in the region.
Christian leaders are meeting to discuss the matter and to plan actions to be taken. Leaders including Bishop Pradeep Kumar Samantaroy, Rev. Mrs. Lily Samantaroy, Rev. Bashir Masih and Rev. Vinita Roy are going to Batala to see the site, but are not sure whether they would be allowed to, since curfew has been clamped and no one is allowed to visit the site of the church, leave alone documenting the damage through photographs and video.
Christians in the whole region are extremely hurt and agitated over this incident. It is uncertain as to how Christians would worship on Sunday tomorrow. Kindly pray for the leaders that right decisions can be made and that peace and solidarity may be restored.
In the event, Bp. Samantaroy and his party were allowed to visit the site, and he has posted a number of pictures here.
According to The Indian Express, which called the controversy the “Jesus picture row,” the offending picture appeared in a Class I cursive writing textbook published by Skyline Publications in Delhi. It was reported that church school authorities in the northeast state of Meghalaya, where 80% of the population is Christian, were disturbed when they received the textbooks. While there are no reports of violence in Meghalaya, authorities there are taking the situation seriously enough to send police to Delhi to question the publisher.
The Punjab violence appears to have been prompted by a poster being circulated that was similar to the one in the textbook. “After Batala, violence spread to other areas of Punjab on Sunday as Christians continued their protest against a wrongful portrayal of Jesus Christ in a hoarding in Jalandhar,” The Express reported on Feb. 22. “A deputy superintendent of police and four other officers sustained severe injuries when protestors blocked traffic at Adda Tibber near Gurdaspur and pelted stones at a police party.”
The nature of the original protest launched by Christians is being looked into by civil and church authorities, as to whether Christians in Batala behaved violently before the church burning. As with the notorious case of the Danish cartoons that Muslims in various parts of the world protested violently, it could be suggested that, although school authorities might rightly reject the textbooks, Christians considering a protest would have been wiser to follow the example of the vast majority of Indian Christians in ignoring disrespectful depictions of Jesus. The fact that many Christians come from Dalit (low caste or outcaste) backgrounds may be an additional factor in that they perceive such an insult in social and political terms in addition to religious terms. Thus they may be likely to feel insult more keenly. Unfortunately, whatever the background, in the current situation Christians have risked being seen as initiators and provocateurs of violence.
Bp. Samantaroy and other leaders have led intensive ecumenical efforts among Christians to defuse emotions and have held conversations with the civil authorities to deal fairly and equitably with issues of the aftermath.
The event marks another incident in the intensifying inter-religious violence that has ebbed and flowed in India since the 1990s’ upsurge in Hindu nationalist sentiment. Muslims in India have also been involved, most seriously in the riots in Gujarat that were said to have claimed about 1,000 Muslim lives in connection with the controversial destruction of a mosque in Ayodhya to make room for construction of a temple to the Hindu God Ram.