Church leaders in India have demanded for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe following the arrest of a member of the nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party for the Aug. 28 murder of a Catholic priest in Kerala.
Father Job Chittilapilly, 71, was found dead with four stab wounds on a veranda adjacent to Varaprasada Matha (Mother of Grace) Church, his parish church in Irinjalakuda diocese, in the state of Kerala.
The priest, who for 45 years carried out his pastoral work in the Catholic community of Syro-Malabar rite, had been praying the rosary before Mass when he was stabbed to death.
Archbishop Jacob Thoomkuzhy of Trichur described it as the first time a priest [was] killed in cold blood in Kerala.
Days after the murder, police arrested Panthalkoottam Raghukumar, allegedly a member of the Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Raghukumar, who apparently confessed to the crime, reportedly told the police that he murdered Father Chittilapilly "to protest against his anti-Hindu activities". He feared Chittilapilly would convert Hindus to Christianity.
Father Chittilapilly often used to visit the homes of poor people and pray for them, disregarding their caste and religion, according to sources. He also helped arrange money for the hospital and education expenses of poor Hindu families. News agencies report that the murdered priest had received a number of threatening calls, to prevent him from visiting Hindu families, although the latter were pleased to receive him.
The Church leaders suspect that the murder may be linked to the renovation of a Hindu temple, next to the church, which had been closed for some 20 years. Two years ago, a group of Hindu activists led by a priest came forward to renovate it. Raghukumar used to be an active member of the renovation team.
"The temple priest had been telling the local Hindus that a Christian priest should be murdered for the temple to achieve fame. We believe Raghukumar was hired by local Hindu groups to kill the priest," a senior Church member of the diocese disclosed.
But local BJP leader Ravi Kumar Uppath denied the charges.
"Raghukumar has been never been a member of the BJP and never worked for the party. The murder of such a noble Catholic priest was a shameful act and we condemn it," Uppath told rediff.com
Uppath said Hindus and Christians live peacefully in Kerala. "We request people not to politicize the priest's murder."
The Church leaders, however, allege that the police are trying to hush up the murder by portraying Raghukumar as a drug addict.
"We believe there was a conspiracy behind this dastardly act. We are sure that some communal elements were involved in the killing of our priest. We want the police to unravel the truth and arrest the real culprits," Bishop James Pazhayattil of Irinjalakuda diocese told rediff.com on Thursday.
Bishop Percival Fernandez, secretary-general of India's episcopal conference, said, "Christians in Kerala have been living in peace and harmony for centuries, and the murder of Father Job is an attempt by misguided people to create communal disharmony."
Condemning Father Chittilappilly's murder and the government's apparent indifference to the case, Archbishop Thoomkuzhy of Trichur, capital of Kerala, told AsiaNews: "We will not stop until the real culprits are found and their motives revealed."
On Thursday, the Irinjalakuda diocesan authorities shut down all its institutes and held a daylong hartal to protest against the murder.
The diocese also formed a 250-member action committee to press for a CBI probe.
Meanwhile, the Episcopal conference has also urged the state government of Kerala to order a Criminal Bureau of Investigation inquiry into the murder.