Located amidst farmhouses in a plush Vasant Kunj neighbourhood called Green Avenue, the Saint Alphonsa’s Roman Catholic Church is rather difficult to locate for a first-time visitor. The church itself has the air of a villa – it could pass off as a quiet holiday retreat, except that no one holidays in the concrete jungle of South Delhi.
On the morning of February 2, though, this quaint church resembles a crime-scene, teeming with cops, forensic experts and journalists. The previous night, the church was broken into, and the tabernacle on the main altar tempered with.
It is the fifth incident in the capital involving a church, in less than six months – something that Father Matthew Koyickal, Chancellor, Archdiocese of Delhi, points out to every reporter (and there are more than a few) interviewing him.
Koyickal is unhappy that the Delhi Police is treating the break-in as a case of theft. “Nothing was stolen – only a vessel, which wouldn’t be worth more than Rs 250. How can it be a case of theft?” asks Koyickal.
He is agitated because the vessel that was stolen was no ordinary vessel. It contained the holy bread, used by the community in their sacrament rites, which was spilled on the floor by the miscreant.
Koyickal’s version, however, is not completely consistent, according to the Delhi Police. A senior official of the Vasant Kunj police station told Newslaundry that the church authorities had initially also complained about the theft of two DVD players along with the vessel – a claim that elicits a strong reaction from Koyickal.
“No, we never said anything about any DVD players being stolen,” Koyickal says defiantly. Both parties, then, agree to settle on the common ground of “there must have been some confusion”.
The property next door to the church is perhaps the only one in the vicinity, which is not a farmhouse. In fact, most of it is just knee-length shrubs. At the edge of the property, though, are a small makeshift shop, and a two-room house, both of which couldn’t be more out of place in the farmhouse land of Green Avenue. Ramdulari and her husband sell tea and cigarettes in the shop – which on the afternoon has done a week’s worth of business thanks to the sudden influx of cops and scribes – and take care of the property, owned by a sahib, who lives in Noida. They have lived here before the church came into being. “We have been here for 15 years, and there has not been a single case of robbery or theft,” says Ramdulari.
When I ask her if she heard something the previous night, her husband, who has just returned to get a refill of tea, which has been in constant supply to the several cops waiting around, interrupts by saying that they were asleep. “How could we hear anything when the people from the church, who live right behind in an adjoining building, in the same compound, didn’t hear anything!” he says, almost surprised at my question.
Like Ramdulari and her husband, no one I spoke to seems to have heard anything. Not the security guard of the property opposite the church, not the cook and his wife, who live in the church. “My husband saw it in the morning and raised an alarm,” the cook’s wife tells me.
According to Father Vincent Salvatore, Parish priest (in charge) of Saint Alphonsa’s, the miscreant broke open the wooden door by use of force, after having presumably jumped over the boundary walls. Salvatore claims two screws on the latch of the door had came undone as a result of the force applied.
Since the new government took over at the Centre, Delhi has seen five instances of a church being attacked. It began with a fire in a church in Dilshad Garden on December 1, which many alleged was an act of arson. That was followed by stones being pelted at a church in Jasola during the evening mass the same year.
In the new year, another fire broke out in a church in Rohini, charring a crib, which again led to church authorities claiming that it was a deliberate attempt to desecrate the church. In the same month of January, a church was attacked by two drunken youths. Police investigations later revealed that it was a result of a drunken bet.
In the other three instances, the police have failed to make any breakthrough so far and no arrests have been made.
Lini Kuruvilla, a member of the church’s congregation, however, is not willing to buy Delhi Police’s narrative about drunken troublemakers. “Five attacks in less than two months, and they want to believe there is no insidious pattern! After the ghar wapsi nonsense, now this,” she says dismissively.
Kuruvilla and other members of the congregation, who have gathered in the church, are unanimous in their stance: The timing (seven days before the elections) and the four other incidents in the last two months suggest an attempt to polarise. “We have never faced any attack on any of our churches ever and suddenly there is a spate of systematic violence,” says another parishioner.
Meanwhile, Twitter has been, expectedly, abuzz with exaggerations and alarmist narratives.
There was no sign of arson – the church authorities themselves confirmed that to me(the picture tweeted out by India Today is from the attack on the Dilshad Garden church).
In fact, a stray inspection of the interiors of the church doesn’t suggest anything more than a break-in and perhaps a desperate attempt to find something valuable. There isn’t as much as a broken glass pane. The church’s complaint points out to the ransacking of the adjacent room (Sacristy) where the church’s sacred clothing is stored. The clothing is stored in wooden drawers – which again presumably is an object of interest for anyone with any intention of stealing something.
However, what does put the Delhi Police’s theft claim on somewhat shaky grounds are the completely untouched alms-boxes. “Isn’t the alms-box the first target for a thief?” questions Koyickal.
That, and with the series of alleged attacks on churches in the last few months, mean that the community is perhaps well within its rights to feel persecuted and suspect a more sinister motive behind the break-in. “There has been no intent on the government’s part to nab the attackers in the previous cases in spite of us repeatedly approaching them,” says Salvatore.
KJ Alphons, member of the National Executive, Bharatiya Janta Party, present on location, rubbishes allegations of government inaction. “A Delhi Police team led by an ACP-level officer and a forensic team have been here since the morning,” he contends.
Delhi Police, after collecting fingerprints and assessing the crime scene for almost five hours, filed a First Information Report under Sections 457 and 380 of the Indian Penal Code. Section 457 pertains to beak-in and trespassing, while Section 380 deals with theft.
The church is distraught. Speaking to Newslaundry, Koyickal lamented that the “police has lodged an FIR about something we haven’t even complained about”.
The church organised a candlelight march in the evening yesterday, praying for “forgiveness of the vandalisers”. With Delhi Police’s FIR treating this is as a case of robbery, there is not much the church can do in any case.