Thursday, April 07, 2005

Pastor attacked, prayer hall burned

Hindu and Muslim villagers burned down a prayer hall and physically attacked three church members following a baptism ceremony in Kerala on 1 April 2005. Two days later, the villagers manhandled Pastor Paul Ciniraj Mohammed and his 54-year-old assistant.

Ciniraj, as he prefers to be known, is a Christian from a Muslim background. He pastors the church in Thiruvananthapuram district. He is also the head of Salem Voice Ministries (SVM), which runs orphanages, village schools and adult literacy centres in Kerala. The SVM is registered under the Charitable Societies Act.

"The incident occurred in the slum area of Panamvilla village in Thiruvananthapuram, where we have a thatched prayer hall," Ciniraj said. According to him, four villagers from Panamvilla were baptized in a ceremony in the prayer hall early in the morning on 1 April, which perhaps made some villagers unhappy. A total of 26 adult members from different villages were baptized during the ceremony.

"After the baptism, I went back to my place in Kottayam district. Later I heard that a group of local villagers, comprising both Hindus and Muslims, attacked three of our church members while they were praying in the prayer hall," Ciniraj said. "After beating them up, the miscreants set the prayer hall on fire."
Ciniraj said, "Ours is the only Christian group in Panamvilla. Except for the 12 people who come to our meetings, the other villagers are either Hindus or Muslims. Some villagers from both communities are against Christians, and a kind of anti-Christian movement is evolving in the village."

When the pastor heard about the attack on the prayer hall, he returned to Panamvilla on 3 April. However, he was also attacked, as he questioned villagers about the violent incident on 1 April. "While I was talking to a leader of the attackers, an old man hit me on the head," said Ciniraj.

"Shivanandan, a 54-year-old church member who was with me, immediately intervened and tried to save me. He was also beaten until he started bleeding profusely. By God's grace, he is all right now." Ciniraj said he did not report the matter to the police because the attackers apologised immediately after the beating.

"When they were beating Shivanandan, I knelt down and prayed to Jesus to save him and also to forgive the attackers." Village women who witnessed the beating saw Ciniraj praying and were moved by his humility. They immediately asked the attackers to stop the beating and apologise.

Some church members said the local unit of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu activist group, was behind the attack. "One of them told me that the local RSS unit was planning to create some trouble during the baptism ceremony," said Ciniraj. "That is why we held the ceremony early in the morning - at first it was scheduled for later in the day," he added.

According to 2001 census figures, 19 per cent of the total population of Kerala is Christian. While Muslims account for 23 per cent of the population in Kerala, Hindus make for 57 per cent. Incidents of violence against Christians are increasingly common in Kerala. As recently as February 22, five pastors from the Church of God were beaten in Karunagapally, near Kerala's Kollam district, while they were holding a convention.