Eusebio Ferrao recently had spoken out against religious rioting.
MUMBAI, March 20 (Compass) - The murder of priest Eusebio Ferrao in Goa state early Saturday morning (March 18) has sent shockwaves through the Catholic communities of India.
Fr. Ferrao, 61, was parish priest of St. Francis Xavier Church in Macazana, a village in the western coastal state. Police said assailants evidently stabbed and hit the elderly priest repeatedly before strangling and smothering him.
Fr. Ferrao's body was discovered at around 6:30 a.m. when parishioners arrived for morning mass.
Police said the suspects in the murder are two young men from Uttar Pradesh state, identified only as Amit and Manish, aged between 25 and 30 years, who had shared a meal with Fr. Ferrao the night before he was killed.
The police have ruled out theft as a motive, since nothing was missing from the church premises.
While police are baffled, local Christians believe Fr. Ferrao was targeted because of his recently published comments on religious riots in the south of Goa.
Riots in Goa
Ferrao wrote regularly for two local newspapers, Roti (Bread) and Vauradeacho Ixt (The Worker's Friend). In early March, he expressed his concern about rioting between Hindus and Muslims in Sanvordem, southern Goa.
During the riots on March 2, mobs severely injured two policemen and two civilians, looted 18 shops and a gas station and damaged 24 vehicles owned by Muslims.
Goa Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao believed the riots were deliberately engineered to inflame an already tense situation between Hindus and Muslims in the region, local media reported.
While Goa Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane blamed Hindu extremists in general for the violence, Muslims singled out the extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), accusing it of crusading for an all-Hindu state.
"After the riots, I demanded a thorough investigation, but the government had no time to carry out this exercise," Churchill Alemao, member of Parliament for South Goa, told Compass. "Now that this gruesome murder has occurred, I hope the authorities will wake up."
Hindu extremists have been increasingly active in Goa over the past year.
Since February 2005, extremists have carried out a host of burglaries and acts of vandalism against churches. In spite of repeated appeals to the police and state authorities, however, no arrests have been made.
Two incidents last week led some local Christians to believe they were given advance warning of the murder. On Thursday (March 16) a church cross was destroyed, and in a nearby park, a priest's robe was hung from a tree and draped with a mosquito net – perhaps signaling that something more serious was about to take place.
Two weeks earlier, on January 30, a cross was vandalized in north Goa, with the words Shri Pardesi (Mr. Foreigner) boldly written on its broken pieces - implying that the vandals saw Christianity as an unwanted, foreign religion.
"Strategies to stir up communal violence in Goa began during the rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)," John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union and National Integration Council member, told Compass. "There is a larger conspiracy at work here."
Dayal has asked Chief Minister Rane to thoroughly investigate the crime.
The Rev. Babu Joseph, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said the multiple desecrations of Christian religious symbols in Goa in recent weeks signaled a new attempt by Hindu extremists to create tension between religious groups.
Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Ahmedabad, said the RSS was targeting Kerala, Goa and Northeast India because of their relatively high Christian populations.
Elections are due next year in Goa, and Hindu extremists may be stirring up communal tensions in an effort to win votes, he said.