Hundreds of hardline Hindus gathered to protest a planned Jesus statue that will rival Rio de Janeiro's "Christ The Redeemer" for its size, claiming the structure will go “against the spirit of communal harmony.”
On Monday, members of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the hardline parent organization of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party, staged protests in the southern state of Karnataka's Ramanagara district, the Times of India reports.
Carrying saffron flags as around 1,000 police stood by, protesters demanded that the state government reverse its decision to allot land for the proposed 114 foot Jesus statue or face further demonstrations.
The Jesus statue is expected to stand atop a hillock named Kapalabetta in Harobele, a village of 3,500 where Christians form a majority. The land is owned by the Archdiocese of Bangalore.
Many Hindus believe the hill where the statue is set to stand is the abode of a Hindu deity, Munieshwara (a form of Lord Shiva). However, no temple currently exists there.
"We want to stop (the statue), since it goes against the spirit of communal harmony and encourages religious conversions which is rampantly carried out by Christian missionaries," Prabhakar Bhat, a top RSS functionary, told Indian media.
“We will not allow a statue of Jesus to be erected at Kapalabetta. They are trying to make it a Christian land just like Pakistan is a Muslim state,” he added.
However, Father Cyril Victor Joseph, chairman of the archdioceses' media commission, told UCA News that the controversy is unnecessary, as the land in Ramanagara district has long been owned by the church.
“We used the same land for decades and conducted the Way of the Cross during Good Fridays,” he said. “A cross was there, and we wanted to replace it with a statue of Jesus after the land was donated to us.”
According to Joseph, the land was donated to a Catholic trust under the diocese in December 2019 by former state minister and Congress party leader D.K. Shivakumar, a Hindu. Shivakuma helped inaugurate the project on Christmas Day.
Amid backlash from hardline Hindu groups, construction of the white granite statue stopped soon after it started last month.
Joseph said the state government has agreed to intervene, asking officials to study the issue and clarify ownership.
“Until then, we are asked to wait,” Joseph told UCA News.
Since the 2014 election of President Modi and the rise of his Bharatiya Janata Party, there has been a rise in Hindu nationalist violence and discrimination against religious minorities.
India ranks as the 10th worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
“Every year more violent incidents are registered, mainly because the government is looking the other way,” an Open Doors USA dossier on the situation in India reads.
According to Open Doors, Hindu radicals view Christians “as alien to the nation.”
“Driven by a desire to cleanse their country from Islam and Christianity, nationalists do not shy away from using extensive violence to achieve their goals,” an Open Doors fact sheet reads.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2019 report warned that religious freedom conditions in India “continued a downward trend” in 2018.
The commission warned against “the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives” that facilitate campaigns of violence, intimidation and harassment against non-Hindu minorities and lower-caste minorities from both public and private actors.