Authorities in India's southern state of Karnataka demolished a 20-foot-tall statue of Jesus, which had been standing in the village for 18 years, claiming it was built on land earmarked by the government for an animal pasture.
The administration in the Kolar district said last week's demolition of the statue next to St. Francis Xavier's Church in Gokunte village. The Karnataka High Court had ordered the destruction, but local Christian leaders said the case was still pending.
Bengaluru Archbishop Peter Machado condemned the statue's demolition, stating that the church possessed ownership documents for the land where the statue sat.
According to Machado, church leaders tried to work with authorities to save the structure, but local authorities were uncooperative.
"It is sad to note that yet another ruthless demolition of a Christian Structure, which included a 20- feet Statue of Jesus and 14 Stations of Cross was carried out by the taluka authorities in a Christian Village, Gokunte, in Kolar, a District of Karnataka touching the border of Andhra," Machado announced in a statement.
"Though the Church has documents of the two acres of the land where these structures were located, the local authorities considered them as not proper or incomplete. The matter is still being heard in the Courts. In fact, the trial court had issued a stay order on the demolition, prior to the High Court's directives."
A local official told the Catholic news outlet Crux that the high court ordered the demolition after seven or eight hearings. However, Machado maintains that there was a stay issued delaying the demolition.
Fr. Theres Babu, a priest and lawyer, refuted the government's claim.
"The government has been repeatedly saying that the demolition letter was issued. We have been asking her to show the demolition order. It is not clear if it was a judgement. But [the government official] never showed us the order," Babu was quoted as saying.
"She has been claiming that the government advocate has sent her an email, saying that the high court has given an order and based on that she went ahead and demolished the statue."
The priest also said a new hearing on the case had been scheduled for Wednesday, the day after the demolition, reports Fides, a Vatican news agency.
The villagers believe a Hindu nationalist group filed a petition in the high court to create tensions in the region.
"The video of the demolition was widely circulated, and the Christians are really alarmed and pained at such repeated acts by the pro-Hindu government machinery," Fr. Faustine Lobo, the spokesperson of the Karnataka Regional Catholic Bishops' Council, was quoted as saying.
Machado reports that over 200 policemen came for the demolition, which was done with bulldozers.
"It was heartbreaking to see hundreds of people shedding their tears. Even assuming that the structures were not fully authorised, Government agencies could have had the magnanimity to regularise these structures, which were in place for over 25 years," Machado said.
"Are there no other communities of other religions who have illegal structures on public or government properties? Why this discriminatory attitude towards the Christian Community only? What was the tearing hurry to initiate this action? Are there the pressures from fundamentalist groups who were bent on the demolition of these Christian structures?"
Machado stressed that in the last two years, there had been at least six similar demolitions. He warned of "attacks on the Churches across the State."
"These religious places were patronised and maintained as places of devotion in Bangalore, and its surroundings for decades," he said.
Karnataka state is ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Days before Christmas, Karnataka became the 10th state in India to pass an anti-conversion law, which presumes that Christians "force" or give financial benefits to Hindus to convert to Christianity.
While some of these laws have been in place for decades in some states, no Christian has been convicted of "forcibly" converting anyone to Christianity.
Open Doors USA, which monitors Christian persecution in over 60 countries, reports that persecution against Christians and other religious minorities has increased since the BJP took power in 2014.
For India's Christians, 2021 was the "most violent year" in the country's history, according to a report by the United Christian Forum. At least 486 violent incidents of Christian persecution were reported in the year.
The UCF attributed the high incidence of Christian persecution to "impunity," due to which "such mobs criminally threaten, physically assault people in prayer, before handing them over to the police on allegations of forcible conversions."
Police registered formal complaints in only 34 of the 486 cases, according to the UCF.
"Often communal sloganeering is witnessed outside police stations, where the police stand as mute spectators," the UCF report states.
Christians make up only 2.3% of India's population and Hindus comprise about 80%.