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IMPHAL, India (ChurchMilitant.com) - India's prominent cardinal, a key advisor to Pope Francis, is minimizing the Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians in India's northeastern state of Manipur by attributing the violence to ethnic rivalries.
"This is a tribal conflict," Cdl. Oswald Gracias categorically asserted in a video statement released by the Archdiocese of Bombay on Wednesday. He added, "It is given a religious twist, but it is not a religious conflict between two religions. It is between two tribes."
"Churches have been destroyed, but temples have also been destroyed," Gracias said, without substantiating the claims of alleged destruction of Hindu temples by Christians. The cardinal claimed that "many more temples than churches" had been destroyed.
The cardinal blamed the systemic and extensive atrocities against Christians on "two tribes historically very hostile to each other," noting that "it exploded into violence because of a certain legislation which was passed."
Gracias warned Catholics not to "do anything to worsen the situation" but to continue "efforts at building harmony and peace."
In a letter to the clergy and laity of the Archdiocese of Bombay on July 25, The cardinal also wrote to the clergy and laity of the archdiocese of Bombay on July 25, stating that the conflict was tribal in nature. The letter made no reference to the Hindu nationalist persecution of Christians of all denominations, including Catholics, in the state of Manipur.
Christian leaders in Manipur, who asked not to be identified, told Church Militant they were "shocked and saddened" that the cardinal had "chosen to paint a very false picture" of the "carefully planned and meticulously orchestrated" persecution of Christians in Manipur.
"Cardinal Gracias is contradicting his own words, the unequivocal statements of his fellow bishops, and a high-profile investigative report presented in the British Parliament," a Christian leader from Imphal, the capital of Manipur, observed.
Christian leaders told Church Militant that the conflict was being portrayed as a tribal conflict between the Kuki–Naga hill tribes (who are predominantly Christian) and the Meitei community (who are not a tribe and are mostly Hindu).
What belies Gracias' claims is the fact that in addition to Kuki–Naga Christians, Meitei Christians (who are largely converts from Hinduism) were also being systematically targeted by militants from their own Meitei Hindu community. No evidence is being provided for the alleged destruction of temples, the Christian leaders explained.
On May 6, Bombay archdiocese published a press release signed by Cdl. Gracias stating that "churches, formation houses and houses of the Christian community have been selectively targeted and have been set on fire and a number of people have been forced to flee."
"It is shocking to note the resurgence of persecution of Christians in the peace-loving state of Manipur," the statement noted. "The violence and targeting of the Christian community in Manipur has deeply saddened and alarmed Cdl. Oswald Gracias."
In a press release from the Syro-Malabar Church on June 30, Abp. Joseph Pamplany of the diocese of Tellicherry said that the ongoing violence in Manipur amounted to the "ethnic-cleansing of Christians," who make up 41.29% of the state's 3.2 million people.
Archbishop Pamplany dared India's Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi to repeat his claim in the United States during a press conference with President Joe Biden that "there was no religious discrimination in India."
"When such ethnic cleansing is happening in our country, our prime minister told the American Congress that there is absolutely no discrimination in India," Pamplany told a solidarity meeting on June 28.
In the U.K. Parliament on July 20, prime minister Rishi Sunak's envoy for religious freedom, Fiona Bruce, presented an investigative report produced by the International Religious Freedom or Belief Alliance demonstrating that the violence was targeted at Christians.
The report indicated that since May, hundreds of churches were destroyed or burned, over 100 people killed, more than 50,000 displaced, and schools and seminaries "targeted in what looks like systematic and premeditated attacks with religion a key factor."
"There has been very little reporting about this. People there are calling out for help. What can the Church do to draw more attention to their cries?" Bruce asked.
In contrast to Cdl. Gracias' claims, the IRFBA report cited by pro-life evangelical MP Fiona Bruce clarifies that "there are clear indications that ethnic and economic disputes have been weaponized against the acceptance of religious pluralism and the ability of individuals to freely worship."
"The scale of the destruction of religious places of worship deserves far wider attention," the report stressed, specifying that only Christian churches and buildings and not temples were destroyed and burned to the ground.
The report provided an exhaustive list of churches and Christian institutions that were destroyed. There were no indications of any temples being destroyed in the conflict.
"As well as hundreds of churches being burned or otherwise destroyed, many Meitei Christians have been threatened to renounce their faith and accept a tribal religion," the report confirmed.
A Baptist pastor from the Meitei community testified to the investigators, "The Meitei Christians are stranded in the middle of discussions about this crisis, yet 250 Meitei Christian churches have been vandalized or destroyed by fire so far by the violent mob."
"In many cases, the mob has burned a church or house belonging to a Meitei Christian but has not damaged their neighbor's door if they are not a Christian," the pastor added.
"The Kukis and Meiteis have lived together in peace for a number of years, but now the Christians [from both communities] are forced to flee from Manipur due to the clear danger to their property and lives," a member of the Manipur Legislative Assembly testified.
The minister also explained that "the tribal people, especially the Kukis, were subjected to demonization through allegations of illegal immigration over five years."
Moreover, a significant region of Manipur occupied by the tribals has vast reserves of oil and natural gas, which successive governments, in league with oil companies, have sought to encroach on. The Christian tribals will "not allow governments to give contracts to companies to extract oil," the minister testified.
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, Church Militant reported.
Catholics have accused several bishops, including Cdl. Gracias, of cozying up to the ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party, a Hindu nationalist political party with links to extremist Hindu outfits who are seeking to "Hinduize" India and cleanse it of Christians, Muslims and adherents of other minority religions.
Pope Francis has yet to speak in defense of the persecuted Christians in Manipur.