Belagavi protestants observe cautious Christmas amid Hindutva hate crimes

Churches have been advised by the police to install CCTV cameras and to not entertain strangers in their hall.
Bajrang Dal attacking Belur Prayer Hall in November 2021.
Bajrang Dal attacking Belur Prayer Hall in November 2021.
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Protestant Christians in Belagavi city are observing a vigilant festive season in the backdrop of hostility from some right wing groups for the past month. Groups such as Sri Ram Sene had been complaining about alleged forced conversions taking place in the city. Pastor Ezekiel Jacob from the Prarthana Bhavan Assembly said that they had scaled back Christmas celebrations in the light of right-wing threats and the pandemic.

“Usually we have a free ten day exhibition from December 23 to 31 in a hall opposite our church. Here we just explain to people about the birth of Christ and his purpose. This year we decided to not do it. Last year, we had abandoned the idea due to the pandemic. But when we did do it, a couple of cops were stationed at the exhibition hall,” he said.

On November 7, Sri Rama Sene members had laid siege to a prayer hall, following which police had registered a case against one pastor, Lema Cherian. Later on, city police had advised protestant worshippers to not gather in rented halls and private houses for prayer meets since cops had their hands full providing security for the winter Assembly session being held in Suvarna Vidhana Soudha in Belagavi from December 13 to 24, where a much contested anti-conversion Bill was recently passed by the ruling BJP.

Pastor Ezekiel Jacob confirmed that they had been advised by the police to install CCTV cameras in their church and to not entertain strangers in their hall. “People from our local (camp) police station advised us to put up CCTV cameras at the entrance of our church and in the main hall to be able to recognise people if there is some untoward incident. “They also told us to not let unknown people join in prayers until they (cops) are on Assembly duty,” Jacob said.

Precautions, say police

The Station House Officer (SHO) Prabhakar Dharmatti insisted that they had cautioned the churches in the light of an incident in Belgaum south (the siege of a Chrsitian prayer hall in Maratha colony by Ram Sene members) and due to the fact that they have been stretched thin providing security for the Assembly session.

“The CCTV cameras were mere advice. It is for their own protection. It would help the police in recognising people as well. This was because of that incident that took place in Tilakwadi. We can’t say what will happen. We are alert on our end in handling the Assembly session and they (protestants) should be alert as well,” Dharmatti said.

He added that they had still managed to extend some protection to the minority community. “We have given them protection. Our people do rounds in the area. There are a few restrictions at this time. They (churches) can’t do anything on the road. They can pray inside while observing COVID-19 guidelines,” he said.

Pastor T Thomas of the Full Gospel Assembly said that while he was wary, he was also optimistic. “We are cautious, but we are not affected by the situation. We come under the jurisdiction of the APMC police station and they have been good to us from the beginning. They never told us to not congregate for prayers. We have spoken to the commissioner as well. It is being looked at.

“Even if they (right wing groups) are against us, we love them. Some people tried to divide us, but we won’t be,” Thomas said, adding that the anti-conversion Bill, if passed, was a sticking point. “We will be challenging it (the bill) in the court of law,” he said.

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