‘Christians are living in constant fear’: UK report highlights ‘religious dimensions’ of Manipur violence

People wait at a temporary shelter in a military camp, after being evacuated by the Indian army, as they flee ethnic violence that has hit the northeastern Indian state of Manipur on May 7, 2023. Tens of thousands have fled ethnic violence in northeast India that has reportedly killed dozens. | ARUN SANKAR/AFP via Getty Images

In a report circulating among policymakers in the United Kingdom, violence in India's troubled state of Manipur has been underscored as having "a clear religious dimension" with the burning of hundreds of churches and Christian villages since the start of last month.

The report, authored by journalist David Campanale and presented to the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance, was circulated by British parliamentarian Fiona Bruce, the Prime Minister's Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief. 

The June 21 report analyzes the reasons behind the violence that began on May 3 in the northeast Indian state, leading to over 100 deaths and forcing tens of thousands to flee their homes.

The violence predominantly occurred in the Imphal Valley, where the majority Hindu Meiteis live, and the Churachandpur district, home to the Kuki-Zomi Christian tribes, igniting at least four days of tumult. This turmoil was followed by near-daily firearm incidents across the state.

The report's findings are based on eyewitness testimonies from survivors of ethnically-driven attacks on Christians.

Pastor T., who represented the Kuki Christian Church and a seminary in Churachandpur, recounted a traumatic event on May 4 when a mob of more than 500 people attacked and burned the campus.

Identified as belonging to the extremist Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun groups, the mob destroyed the church, the church's head office, the offset press, the book room and 12 residential quarters.

Pastor T. had been serving at the church for two years. He claims to have witnessed the inaction of the Manipur police commandos and paramilitaries at the entrance gate, who failed to prevent or control the destruction. The police were preoccupied with containing the fire from spreading to the neighboring areas, despite those areas not being vulnerable to fire. From a distance, Pastor T. observed the engulfing flames.

The Meitei Christian community, trapped amid religious and ethnic conflict, is also facing severe persecution, with over 250 churches vandalized or destroyed by a violent mob, according to a Baptist pastor who spoke with the hearing panel. 

Their property, especially those of Christians, is targeted, often looted before being burned. They encounter hostility from the Meitei community for their Christian faith and the Kuki community for their Meitei identity.

According to Baptist Pastor S., churches were burned in at least three districts. He has heard firsthand reports from Meitei Christians and began to compile a list. 

"The headquarters of Manipur Baptist association, Meitei Presbyterian Synod, and the Church of God, Manipur have been destroyed," Pastor S. was quoted as saying. "Another campaign by the extremists is to convert church land into community centres, village gyms, and other buildings."

He said Christians are "living in constant fear about being attacked at any time."

"Part of our identity and our churches are being destroyed," the pastor said. 

"Our churches are being burned down, and we have not been able to gather together for worship or prayer since 3rd May 2023. We feel like strangers in our own land, and we are in effect being required to choose between our faith or our land."

Tensions were ignited by an April 2023 order from the High Court of Manipur that directed the state government to consider including the Meitei community in the Scheduled Tribe list. This would grant the Meiteis similar constitutional privileges enjoyed by the tribal communities, including the ability to purchase land in the hill regions, a move that sparked fear among the tribal groups.

On May 3, tribal students organized a rally across the state, mainly in Churachandpur, against the Meiteis' demand for tribal status. The violence began after the rally.

The hearing panel was chaired by David Campanale, a former BBC journalist and a member of the Council of Experts advising Bruce. Campanale visited the Imphal area for three days and the Churachandpur hills for three days.

Church associations in Manipur report the destruction of over 400 churches, Christian schools, homes and seminaries belonging to both Meitei and Kuki communities.

"The Meiteis are fearful of their community members converting to Christianity and so they are being violent," the Baptist pastor told the panel. "We ask the community around the world to raise a voice on behalf of us for our safety."

The report was commissioned by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance last month at the request of the Council of Experts.

According to its findings, the violence has resulted in the displacement of nearly 50,000 individuals, the devastation of hundreds of villages and the loss of over 100 lives.

David Landrum, director of advocacy at Open Doors UK & Ireland, commented on the report, saying that "Tribal tensions have been co-opted by radical Hindutva extremists."

Hindutva refers to the Hindu nationalist ideology, which sees India as land belonging only to Hindus.

Landrum told Premier that he hopes the report will highlight the role of "Hindutva forces" in fuelling the violence. He expressed concern about the lack of accountability and justice for these attacks, with local authorities and police forces often being seen as complicit.

"We want to see the international community call for a commission of inquiry on India generally, on what's been happening, on the anti-conversion laws, which are spectacularly discriminatory, and on the attacks that we're seeing now across different parts of India," Landrum said.

Having visited the region, Campanale warned that the speed of the violence was noteworthy.

"In only 2-3 days, at least 3,000 homes and 290 churches were damaged, destroyed and burned — and this is a conservative estimate because the actual number could double this. The conservative estimate of numbers equates to 60 houses vandalized every hour during those violent days, or one house per minute."

The report advocates for the deployment of the Indian Army to vulnerable tribal villages to reinstate peace. It further advises providing relief workers access to affected regions and displaced individuals, particularly in remote camps, to effectively meet their needs.

The report also asserts the significance of permitting investigative journalists, inter-religious leaders and specialists on religious freedom into these areas to gather reliable information, alleviate tensions and evaluate the impact.

Researchers recommend the establishment of helpline numbers and the restoration of internet connectivity. They suggest increasing flight availability while introducing fare caps and establishing a claims commission for victims' compensation. Moreover, the report underscores the need to facilitate the rehabilitation of victims back to their original homes.

The report also calls for courts to scrutinize the roots of the violence, the utilization of media for disseminating misinformation and the repercussions on religious freedom.

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