Christmas after the church burnt down

Christmas Eve

A day before Christmas Eve, the St Sebastian Church in northeast Delhi’s Dilshad Garden wore a deserted look. Outside the church, a couple of policemen stood guard while Peter, the watchman, sat on a chair placed near the gate of a graveyard meant only for children.

Seventy-year-old Peter stared at a poster put up by the St Sebastian church, carrying photographs of the church before and after it got burnt earlier this month. A verse from the Bible separated the two photographs.

“No power in the sky above or in the earth below – indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” Romans 8:39.

For the watchman Peter and the 350 people who would attend the midnight mass on Christmas Eve, the verses from the Bible might have meant different things in the past. But today it is about asserting themselves in an increasingly polarised climate.

“We had requested the government to repair the church before Christmas but nothing has happened so far. We will set up a tent outside the church and conduct the mass there,” says Peter.

The news about new venue for the mass had already reached the Christian community living in northeastern parts of the City. Martin Robert lives in Janata Flats in the same area and will be among one the people at the mass. While hoping that his locality will show communal harmony on the day of Christmas and afterwards, Robert did not deny being concerned about the safety of his community after the burning of the Church.

Though the investigation into the fire is underway, several people had protested outside the police headquarters accusing ‘unknown groups’ of burning down the church to instil fear among the minorities.

“Even if the fire was a result of a short circuit as police initially suspected, the entire incident emboldens people who look for opportunities to target religious minorities.
On the other hand the minorities will always feel insecure till the investigation is completed,” Robert said.

According to Father Anthony Francis, however, the fire was a deliberate attempt irrespective of the fact whether it was an act of mischief or of communal hatred. “The evidence that has surfaced so far indicates that the fire was started by someone who does such thing as a profession. The watchman had gone out for a cup of tea early morning and within minutes the fire had consumed the church,” said Father Anthony, the Parish priest.

John Dayal, national secretary of All India Catholic Union and national convenor of the United Christian Forum for Human Rights, believes that the incident is part of a larger plan to target minorities. “The fire was preceded by issues such as love jehad. The whole ghar wapsi campaign has been the latest. The three seem part of one carefully thought out strategy. Who else benefits but the Sangh,” Dayal said.

Till now there have been no eyewitnesses to the alleged sabotage but there were many who saw the church getting burnt and among them were members of the Paal community, which used to herd buffaloes, living in a colony set up behind the church. In conversation with Metrolife, members of the Paal community rubbished chances of the  alleged role of right-wing groups behind the fire.

“Jesus Christ was a gadriya himself, meaning a shepherd. Why would anyone from us target them,” said Ravish Paal.

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