Plans to burn several church buildings in central India came to an end on Sunday after officers arrested three Hindu extremists, but not before they had set one structure ablaze, police said.
Pastor Mahesh Kumre of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Chaukipura village (under tribal-dominated Sukhtawa block), Madhya Pradesh, said he found the building charred when he arrived at 11 a.m. to start worship service on Sunday morning.
“The walls were blackened with the smoke from the fire, the electrical switchboard burnt, and the name ‘Ram’ written on one of the inside walls of the church in Hindi language,” Pastor Kumre told Morning Star News.
Just before Christmas, the 60-year-old pastor had finished laying the floor, applied a coat of paint and fixed a windowpane on the 5-year-old structure.
The assailant cut the mesh of the window to break in, and the pastor found the door open.
“All the furniture, including the chairs, wooden pulpit, carpets, table, tambourines, frame drums and a Bible were burned using some inflammatory liquid, which turned everything into ashes,” Pastor Kumre said.
He reported the matter to Kesla police, and investigating officers arrested Avneesh Pandey, a 24-year-old from Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, with a post-graduate degree in management who had been working in Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, the past year, said Narmadapuram Superintendent of Police Gurkaran Singh.
Officers found that Pandey’s friend, 24-year-old Aakash Tiwari of Jhansi, 265 miles from Itarsi, had sent Pandey locations of churches to be attacked, Singh said.
“If we had not stopped these people, their next targets in line were churches and Mazars/Dargahs (Muslim shrines) in Itarsi [sub-district headquarters of Narmadapuram District] and then Bhopal,” the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, Singh told Morning Star News.
He emphasized that the Hindu assailants were “basically fringe elements” who did not belong to an extremist group or political party.
“They basically thought that they have to do something to avenge and protect their religion,” Singh told Morning Star News. “There were not many people involved. The Itarsi person [Pandey] was doing it single-handedly. Tiwari was paying this person 4,000 to 5,000 rupees [$48-60] after each such act.”
Police registered a First Information Report (FIR No. 0011) for “injuring and defiling place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class” on Sunday. The FIR under sections of the Indian Penal Code was registered against “unidentified persons,” as the suspects had not yet been identified when it was filed.