Date:  February 16, 2023

One worship site torched.

By Our India Correspondent

Fire damage to church building in Chaukipura village, Madhya Pradesh, India on Feb. 12, 2023. (Morning Star News)

Fire damage to church building in Chaukipura village, Madhya Pradesh, India, discovered on Feb. 12, 2023. (Morning Star News)

NEW DELHI (Morning Star News) – Plans to burn several church buildings in central India came to an end on Sunday (Feb. 12) after officers arrested three Hindu extremists, but not before they had set one structure ablaze, police said.

Pastor Mahesh Kumre of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chaukipura village (under tribal-dominated Sukhtawa block), Madhya Pradesh, said he found the building charred when he arrived at 11 a.m. to start worship service on Sunday morning (Feb. 12).

“The walls were blackened with the smoke from the fire, the electrical switchboard burnt, and the name ‘Ram’ written on one of the inside walls of the church in Hindi language,” Pastor Kumre told Morning Star News.

Just before Christmas, the 60-year-old pastor had finished laying the floor, applied a coat of paint and fixed a windowpane on the 5-year-old structure.

The assailant cut the mesh of the window to break in, and the pastor found the door open.

“All the furniture, including the chairs, wooden pulpit, carpets, table, tambourines, frame drums and a Bible were burned using some inflammatory liquid, which turned everything into ashes,” Pastor Kumre said.

He reported the matter to Kesla police, and investigating officers arrested Avneesh Pandey, a 24-year-old from Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh with a post-graduate degree in management who had been working in Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh the past year, said Narmadapuram Superintendent of Police Gurkaran Singh.

Officers found that Pandey’s friend, 24-year-old Aakash Tiwari, of Jhansi, 265 miles from Itarsi, had sent Pandey locations of churches to be attacked, Singh said.

“If we had not stopped these people, their next targets in line were churches and Mazars/Dargahs (Muslim shrines) in Itarsi [sub-district headquarters of Narmadapuram District] and then Bhopal,” the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, Singh told Morning Star News.

He emphasized that the Hindu assailants were “basically fringe elements” who did not belong to an extremist group or political party.

“They basically thought that they have to do something to avenge and protect their religion,” Singh told Morning Star News. “There were not many people involved. The Itarsi person [Pandey] was doing it single-handedly. Tiwari was paying this person 4,000 to 5,000 rupees [US$48-60] after each such act.”

Police registered a First Information Report (FIR No. 0011) for “injuring and defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class” on Sunday (Feb. 12). The FIR under sections of the Indian Penal Code was registered against “unidentified persons,” as the suspects had not yet been identified when it was filed.

“Because Chaukipura village is far from Itarsi [16 miles], this time the assailant used the motorbike of his neighbor, Shiva Kumar, 23, an electrician working with the Indian Railways, who also accompanied him [Pandey],” Singh said. “Police have arrested Shiva as well.”

Previously Pandey had set fire to Bibles outside an Evangelical Church of India building in Itarsi on Jan. 9, Singh said.

The Destruction

Pastor Kumre was unsure when his church building was burned. There were no cameras installed at the site.

“I could have never imagined that such a thing could happen,” he said. “I have been living peacefully in this area for the past 22 years, and never has anybody threatened me or harmed me in any way before.”

Church member Vilsen Mawase said about 30 pastors from the Itarsi area gathered on Tuesday (Feb. 14), to chart out a plan to ask authorities for protection. Representatives of the Itarsi pastors fellowship and the Christian Youth Association of Itarsi then met with the sub-divisional magistrate on Wednesday (Feb. 15) and presented a memorandum to the president of India appealing for protection.

The Christian leaders also thanked the police for their prompt action in arresting the suspects.

The hostile tone of the National Democratic Alliance government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, against non-Hindus, has emboldened Hindu extremists in several parts of the country to attack Christians since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in May 2014, religious rights advocates say.

India ranked 11th on Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. The country was 31st in 2013, but its position worsened after Modi came to power.