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Can Delhi’s demolished church, and shattered trust be repaired?

Delhi CM puts the onus of church demolition on DDA, which denies charges

Karuna John 15 Jul 2021

Demolised Church

It was the obvious restraint of the Christian community, following the demolition of a church in south Delhi’s Chattarpur area on July 12, that has prevented any untoward communal unrest in the national capital. However, it is also the silence, rather evasion of responsibility for the action that may have sowed the seeds of mistrust in the community.

The South Delhi district administration had razed a church built upon “encroached” land, this according to media reports was done “during a demolition drive” in Chattarpur, which is best described as an urban village, with shops, residential areas, government establishments all have coexisted peacefully. A little further down are historical architectural wonders such as the Qutub Minar, and many others in the Mehrauli archeological zone. There are also grand temple complexes such as the well known Chattarpur Mandir. The history of the area is well known, and it is also known to have been mostly peaceful even when the rest of the city has seen communal unrest in recent times.

One of the most docile communities are the Christians who live around here, many of who are members of the congregation of the The Little Flower Syro Malabar Church that is in Dr Ambedkar Colony near Andheria Mod (crossroad) area in Chhatarpur. According to a report in the Indian Express, Father Jose Kannumkuzhy, the parish priest of the church said it was “operating from a temporary structure,” which was suddenly demolished. Soon enough messages in the church groups shared how the demolition squad arrived with police protection and tore the structure down, the priests did not even get time to gather the religious articles used in worship. Some staged a small protest against the demolition and asked the police to give them time. However, what moved many more was the Holy Mass prayers that were then conducted amidst the rubble of the demolished structure. 

The background of ownership

Another video circulating on church groups was a video message from the plot's original owner John Philipose, an acclaimed museologist, and interior designer who is credited with donating this plot of land to the church over a decade ago. In his message Philipose explained that while the gram sabha land had been legally allotted for poultry farmers in 1975. He had the land since 1985, however as the area was densely populated poultry farms could not be run there. So most of the plot owners started running various businesses. Philipose had set up his art gallery and his architectural office there. From 2000-2005 he was not using the land at all and was approached by the parishioners asking if they could use this as a place of worship. “Without a second thought, we said it is the happiest moment of our life..” he said, and he gave the church that plot. The church worship took place for 15 years since then. He adds that the church is not the only place of worship in Amnedkar Nagar colony, “It is a multi religious community” that lives there, said Philipose. There are many temples, gurudwara, Jain temples, a Buddhist monastery all in a range of a few kilometers. However, the church was the only structure demolished. Phillipose in his message said that the “property is legal” and the authorities who had given a commitment should have given a chance to [the church] to reply to any queries. “I feel regret why did they victimise us,” he ends his video with an offer to the authors of giving any clarifications they sought.

According to the Catholic News Service, Father Jose said that on July 9, "an evacuation notice was given ... to our security guard without any proper communication. I checked with the lawyer and he said it is not even addressed to anyone and there is a stay order from the National Human Rights Commission that this place of worship should not be demolished." He added, “A few people came Monday (July 12) morning, assured me, 'We will not touch the church.' When I tried to call others, they pushed me out and did not allow me to enter the compound to remove the tabernacle or holy items from the church." Soon the “police barricaded the whole area and prevented our people from coming near to protest. This is shocking," said the priest of the parish which reportedly has over 2,500 members.

Demolised Church

It was DDA who demolished church says Kejriwal

However, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal seems to have stepped away from the matter saying the demolition was done by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that comes under the Union government. He spoke to the media at Panjim, Goa, and said, “I am told, firstly, it was done by DDA. DDA comes under the central government. The Delhi government has no control over it. DDA perhaps went to the High Court. The High Court gave an order and DDA has taken that action. Our local MLAs are involved with the church. Our Chhatarpur MLA Tanwarji is with them, with the church. We will provide whatever help they need.” Kejriwal added that “justice” will be done.

According to Indian Express, while Kejriwal has put the onus on the DDA, its officials have denied that the demolition was carried out by them or on their recommendation. “Our team has not taken any such action,” a senior official was quoted by IE. According to the report a show cause notice to the “encroachers” was issued  on July 7, by the Block Development Officer, South Delhi district. This comes under the Delhi government’s revenue department. The notice stated that “an encroachment on gram sabha land was observed by the area Panchayat Secretary” and that the land is for public utility and has not been “allotted to anybody.” According to the news report the occupants were given three days to remove the structure, “failing which action will be taken”.

The notice reportedly cited “a letter from the Home Police-II Department, GNCT of Delhi, dated March 3, which referred to a 2015 High Court interim order on demolishing encroachments.” However, Father Jose alleged that the demolition was done suddenly. "They came without any prior information. I was here when it happened. Everything has been demolished, statues broken, instruments used for prayers, church records, sound systems have all been damaged. The altar is still there but we cannot use it anymore. It was not even a concrete structure, only a temporary shed,” he told the IE.

Meanwhile, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, said, “Churches are used as places of worship and a tense situation should not have happened at such a place of worship. The Kerala government has limitations in intervening in the issue. However, the government would explore what can be done.”

Church leaders condemn demolition, write to PM

The New Indian Express reported that The Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Verapoly and Jacobite Syrian Christain Church condemned the demolition of Little Flower Church (that is under the Faridabad diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in Delhi). Archbishop of Verapoly Joseph Kalathiparambil issued a statement saying, “The demolition of the church has cast a shadow on the secular nature of the country. For over 13 years, over 1,500 faithful from around 450 families used to rely on the church for prayers.” He has also demanded that the authorities concerned intervene at the earliest and find a resolution to the issue.

Metropolitan Kuriakose Theophilose, media cell chairman of the Jacobite Church, also issued a statement condemning the demolition. They said, “The act of destroying a church under the Syro-Malabar Church in Delhi casts a shadow on the image of India, which to the world is a symbol of secularism. The Jacobite Church condemns this unfortunate incident. We urged the Delhi government to find a resolution to the issue urgently and show the way by making alternative arrangements for the people who lost the church to pray.”

According to the Catholic Register portal, the Syro-Malabar Bishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad, has now requested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervene and  rebuild the church. Bishop Bharanikulangara wrote to the PM on July 13 requesting his “immediate intervention in this serious matter ... to rebuild and restitute (sic) the damage done to the believers and their place of worship". The Bishop told the media, "We are shocked by this brazen church demolition. There was no provocation or reason for this church demolition,” adding “We built a temporary (church) structure on the land and we have been using it for regular worship for over 12 years. The parish has been paying property tax, water and electricity bills." Bishop Bharanikulangara wrote to the PM, that church leaders were denied an opportunity to respond to the evacuation order, "With scant respect to the religious sacred place, they devastated, vandalized and desecrated everything and razed the church within hours."

Former members of  Delhi Minorities Commission issue statement 

Reacting sharply to the demolition, former members of  Delhi Minorities Commission issued a public statement on Thursday. Signatories Sr. Anastasia Gill, A C Michael and Abraham Pattiyani stated that it was “shocking that the Office of the Block Development Officer (South), M.B. Road, Saket, New Delhi which directly reports to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi issued a demolition notice (which never reached the Church authorities) to demolish a religious property without proper scrutiny or study, which of course was obediently and promptly demolished by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), which too is under the control of ruling party in Centre.”

They asked why the Church was demolished “in such a hurry when the matter is still pending in the Court? Such hurried action not only violates the religious sentiments of the people, it in fact disturbs the religious harmony of the country.” According to the former members of DMC, the SDMC’s actions can be seen as a pattern that emerges “whenever there are elections around these kinds of incidents are propped up to polarise people’s minds.” They added that other incidents are being reported from across the country of actions “against religious minority groups and their places of worship.”

The three activists have asked that people “see the designs of certain political groups and avoid making statements that are not in tune with the facts”. They added that “Delhi Government led by Arvind Kejriwal has agreed to look into the matter and they will also consider to restore the Church to the original status and hand it back to Church authorities.”

Related:

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Can Delhi’s demolished church, and shattered trust be repaired?

Delhi CM puts the onus of church demolition on DDA, which denies charges

Demolised Church

It was the obvious restraint of the Christian community, following the demolition of a church in south Delhi’s Chattarpur area on July 12, that has prevented any untoward communal unrest in the national capital. However, it is also the silence, rather evasion of responsibility for the action that may have sowed the seeds of mistrust in the community.

The South Delhi district administration had razed a church built upon “encroached” land, this according to media reports was done “during a demolition drive” in Chattarpur, which is best described as an urban village, with shops, residential areas, government establishments all have coexisted peacefully. A little further down are historical architectural wonders such as the Qutub Minar, and many others in the Mehrauli archeological zone. There are also grand temple complexes such as the well known Chattarpur Mandir. The history of the area is well known, and it is also known to have been mostly peaceful even when the rest of the city has seen communal unrest in recent times.

One of the most docile communities are the Christians who live around here, many of who are members of the congregation of the The Little Flower Syro Malabar Church that is in Dr Ambedkar Colony near Andheria Mod (crossroad) area in Chhatarpur. According to a report in the Indian Express, Father Jose Kannumkuzhy, the parish priest of the church said it was “operating from a temporary structure,” which was suddenly demolished. Soon enough messages in the church groups shared how the demolition squad arrived with police protection and tore the structure down, the priests did not even get time to gather the religious articles used in worship. Some staged a small protest against the demolition and asked the police to give them time. However, what moved many more was the Holy Mass prayers that were then conducted amidst the rubble of the demolished structure. 

The background of ownership

Another video circulating on church groups was a video message from the plot's original owner John Philipose, an acclaimed museologist, and interior designer who is credited with donating this plot of land to the church over a decade ago. In his message Philipose explained that while the gram sabha land had been legally allotted for poultry farmers in 1975. He had the land since 1985, however as the area was densely populated poultry farms could not be run there. So most of the plot owners started running various businesses. Philipose had set up his art gallery and his architectural office there. From 2000-2005 he was not using the land at all and was approached by the parishioners asking if they could use this as a place of worship. “Without a second thought, we said it is the happiest moment of our life..” he said, and he gave the church that plot. The church worship took place for 15 years since then. He adds that the church is not the only place of worship in Amnedkar Nagar colony, “It is a multi religious community” that lives there, said Philipose. There are many temples, gurudwara, Jain temples, a Buddhist monastery all in a range of a few kilometers. However, the church was the only structure demolished. Phillipose in his message said that the “property is legal” and the authorities who had given a commitment should have given a chance to [the church] to reply to any queries. “I feel regret why did they victimise us,” he ends his video with an offer to the authors of giving any clarifications they sought.

According to the Catholic News Service, Father Jose said that on July 9, "an evacuation notice was given ... to our security guard without any proper communication. I checked with the lawyer and he said it is not even addressed to anyone and there is a stay order from the National Human Rights Commission that this place of worship should not be demolished." He added, “A few people came Monday (July 12) morning, assured me, 'We will not touch the church.' When I tried to call others, they pushed me out and did not allow me to enter the compound to remove the tabernacle or holy items from the church." Soon the “police barricaded the whole area and prevented our people from coming near to protest. This is shocking," said the priest of the parish which reportedly has over 2,500 members.

Demolised Church

It was DDA who demolished church says Kejriwal

However, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal seems to have stepped away from the matter saying the demolition was done by the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) that comes under the Union government. He spoke to the media at Panjim, Goa, and said, “I am told, firstly, it was done by DDA. DDA comes under the central government. The Delhi government has no control over it. DDA perhaps went to the High Court. The High Court gave an order and DDA has taken that action. Our local MLAs are involved with the church. Our Chhatarpur MLA Tanwarji is with them, with the church. We will provide whatever help they need.” Kejriwal added that “justice” will be done.

According to Indian Express, while Kejriwal has put the onus on the DDA, its officials have denied that the demolition was carried out by them or on their recommendation. “Our team has not taken any such action,” a senior official was quoted by IE. According to the report a show cause notice to the “encroachers” was issued  on July 7, by the Block Development Officer, South Delhi district. This comes under the Delhi government’s revenue department. The notice stated that “an encroachment on gram sabha land was observed by the area Panchayat Secretary” and that the land is for public utility and has not been “allotted to anybody.” According to the news report the occupants were given three days to remove the structure, “failing which action will be taken”.

The notice reportedly cited “a letter from the Home Police-II Department, GNCT of Delhi, dated March 3, which referred to a 2015 High Court interim order on demolishing encroachments.” However, Father Jose alleged that the demolition was done suddenly. "They came without any prior information. I was here when it happened. Everything has been demolished, statues broken, instruments used for prayers, church records, sound systems have all been damaged. The altar is still there but we cannot use it anymore. It was not even a concrete structure, only a temporary shed,” he told the IE.

Meanwhile, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, said, “Churches are used as places of worship and a tense situation should not have happened at such a place of worship. The Kerala government has limitations in intervening in the issue. However, the government would explore what can be done.”

Church leaders condemn demolition, write to PM

The New Indian Express reported that The Latin Catholic Archdiocese of Verapoly and Jacobite Syrian Christain Church condemned the demolition of Little Flower Church (that is under the Faridabad diocese of the Syro-Malabar Church in Delhi). Archbishop of Verapoly Joseph Kalathiparambil issued a statement saying, “The demolition of the church has cast a shadow on the secular nature of the country. For over 13 years, over 1,500 faithful from around 450 families used to rely on the church for prayers.” He has also demanded that the authorities concerned intervene at the earliest and find a resolution to the issue.

Metropolitan Kuriakose Theophilose, media cell chairman of the Jacobite Church, also issued a statement condemning the demolition. They said, “The act of destroying a church under the Syro-Malabar Church in Delhi casts a shadow on the image of India, which to the world is a symbol of secularism. The Jacobite Church condemns this unfortunate incident. We urged the Delhi government to find a resolution to the issue urgently and show the way by making alternative arrangements for the people who lost the church to pray.”

According to the Catholic Register portal, the Syro-Malabar Bishop Kuriakose Bharanikulangara of Faridabad, has now requested that Prime Minister Narendra Modi intervene and  rebuild the church. Bishop Bharanikulangara wrote to the PM on July 13 requesting his “immediate intervention in this serious matter ... to rebuild and restitute (sic) the damage done to the believers and their place of worship". The Bishop told the media, "We are shocked by this brazen church demolition. There was no provocation or reason for this church demolition,” adding “We built a temporary (church) structure on the land and we have been using it for regular worship for over 12 years. The parish has been paying property tax, water and electricity bills." Bishop Bharanikulangara wrote to the PM, that church leaders were denied an opportunity to respond to the evacuation order, "With scant respect to the religious sacred place, they devastated, vandalized and desecrated everything and razed the church within hours."

Former members of  Delhi Minorities Commission issue statement 

Reacting sharply to the demolition, former members of  Delhi Minorities Commission issued a public statement on Thursday. Signatories Sr. Anastasia Gill, A C Michael and Abraham Pattiyani stated that it was “shocking that the Office of the Block Development Officer (South), M.B. Road, Saket, New Delhi which directly reports to the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi issued a demolition notice (which never reached the Church authorities) to demolish a religious property without proper scrutiny or study, which of course was obediently and promptly demolished by the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), which too is under the control of ruling party in Centre.”

They asked why the Church was demolished “in such a hurry when the matter is still pending in the Court? Such hurried action not only violates the religious sentiments of the people, it in fact disturbs the religious harmony of the country.” According to the former members of DMC, the SDMC’s actions can be seen as a pattern that emerges “whenever there are elections around these kinds of incidents are propped up to polarise people’s minds.” They added that other incidents are being reported from across the country of actions “against religious minority groups and their places of worship.”

The three activists have asked that people “see the designs of certain political groups and avoid making statements that are not in tune with the facts”. They added that “Delhi Government led by Arvind Kejriwal has agreed to look into the matter and they will also consider to restore the Church to the original status and hand it back to Church authorities.”

Related:

Role of RSS & police in communal riots, Aligarh: Parliamentary debates
Thank you, dear Fr. Stan, you will live forever!
“Help! I’m being threatened because I'm a Christian”
Secularism and the Constitution
Is the new amendment to Gujarat’s education law violating minority rights?
First coconut trees painted saffron, now livelihood, culture threatened: Pinarayi 

 

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