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Warning: The following article contains images and descriptions of deceased individuals and violent content that may be distressing and disturbing to some readers.
MANIPUR, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - Outrage over the violence against Christians in the tribal belt of India's northeastern state of Manipur has peaked after multiple Christian women were paraded naked and gang-raped by Hindu mobs.
Horrific video footage of two Christian women, ages 20 and 24, being stripped, paraded naked, molested and gang raped on May 4 by radical Hindus armed with knives and sticks went viral last week on social media.
A Christian pastor on the ground, who requested anonymity, told Church Militant there have been at least six incidents where Christian women have been systematically targeted by Hindu mobs for "punishment by stripping them, parading them naked and then raping them."
The raped women belong to the Kuki community, which is comprised of more than 20 sub-tribes and is predominantly Christian (both evangelical and Catholic).
The aggressors are from the Meitei ethnic group and practice Vaishnavite Hinduism.
A dossier obtained by Church Militant contains records of 22 female victims of rape, torture, assault, arson and murder.
Victims include 23-year-old Olivia Lhingneithem Chongloi and 25-year-old Florence Nengpichong Hangshing, both employees in a car wash, who were raped by a Meitei mob after being identified as Kuki Christians.
Hekim and Helam Chongloi, both unmarried sisters in their 50s, were shot dead in their backyard after radical Hindus strangled their blind and bedridden mother to death.
A Meitei mob beat 45-year-old Thiandam Vaiphei to death and later burned her body. Tongsing Hangsing (7), Meena Hangsing (45) and Lydia Lourembam (37), were burned to death in an ambulance by a 2,000-strong mob.
"The heinous crimes committed against the Kuki [Christian] community, the targeting of Kuki women, the use of rape as a weapon by Meitei [Hindu] mobs — all carried out with impunity by these groups — has been kept silent and concealed by the state," political scientist Dr. Kham Khan Suan Hausing told the Guardian, a left-wing British newspaper.
"It wasn't until this video went viral that this overzealous attempt by the state to control the narrative has finally been exposed," lamented Hausing, a professor of political science at the University of Hyderabad.
Since the anti-Christian violence erupted in May, over 130 people have been killed and 400 wounded. More than 60,000 people have been forced to leave their homes as the army, paramilitary forces and police struggle to quell violence.
At least 300 churches have been burned down and demolished by Meitei Hindu gangs, which has led Catholic bishops and other Church leaders to conclude that the violence is primarily religious and not ethnic, as is being claimed in secular media outlets.
While the archbishop of Imphal, Dominic Lumon, warned that it would be "categorically wrong to say that the current one is a religious conflict," he noted that "religiously motivated attacks are an undeniable fact" since "each of the more than 200 Kuki villages has seen one or more churches attacked."
"The crisis facing the people and the church in Manipur is not an isolated incident," but should be seen from the broader perspective of "concern for minorities in India," Lumon added, referring to the widespread persecution of Christians under the radical Hindu government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
According to the Kerala Catholic Bishops' Commission for Social Harmony and Vigilance, which carried out an inquiry into the Manipur riots, the sectarian violence had been "well-orchestrated" and "targeted the Kuki tribe," 90% of whom are Christians.
"Shockingly, today, there is barely a Church that is still standing in the Imphal valley, except a few of those where the non-Zomi-Kuki tribals go for worship. Definitely, this is the first in Indian history that this many places of worship have been vandalized, burnt or demolished," the Samast Christi Samaj said in a press release.
"In terms of cruelty, not even infants, children, elderly and infirm have been spared. Cases of rape, mob-lynching, burn[ing] to death, caging in gunny bags, gagging and beating to death are reported to be tactics employed," the statement reported.
The Meitei Hindus, who constitute 65% of the state's population, live in the valleys but own only 10% of the land. The Kuki-Naga tribals, who live in the mountainous regions, are predominantly Christian and have about 90% of the land reserved for them.
Secular commentators claim that the root of the conflict lies in the Meitei demand for inclusion in the scheduled tribe list, which guarantees state-sponsored affirmative action, including financial and employment benefits for tribals.
On June 5, Licypriya Kangujam, an 11-year-old Hindu schoolgirl and climate activist from Manipur, met Pope Francis and appealed to him to help bring peace to her strife-torn state.
The Hindu radical media website The Organiser has accused the Christian tribals of exploiting the reserved land to grow opium and seeking to convert the Meitei to Christianity.
Christianity was brought to the Kuki and Naga tribes by American Baptist missionary William Pettigrew, who arrived in Manipur in 1894. Pettigrew's evangelizing efforts provoked hostility among the Hindus, and the state banned missionary work among the Meitei community.
Even though Catholicism is a "late entrant" into Manipur, with the first group of Kukis being received into the Catholic Church in 1952, Catholics now constitute a "sizeable portion" of the population, according to Church historian Thongkholal Haokip.