By Santosh Digal, Worthy News Asia Correspondent
NEW DELHI, INDIA (Worthy News)-- Officials of one of India's largest ecumenical church organizations rushed to the country's Punjab state Wednesday, February 24, after clashes between Christians and Hindus left at least 10 people injured and two churches, several shops and other properties destroyed.
The All India Christian Council (AICC) said fighting in the north western state erupted after a Delhi-based publisher allegedly distributed an "objectionable" picture of Jesus Christ at the entrance of a temple for a Hindu god. The incident happened during celebrations for the "birth of Hindu god Ram" at Jalandhar city recently, AICC said.
AICC investigators and other officials were due to meet in the state capital Chandigarh before travelling to the troubled areas, AICC spokesperson Madhu Chandra told BosNewsLife. The fact finding team is led by John Dayal, Secretary General of AICC and Member of India's National Integration Council, Chandra added.
They arrived as a curfew was imposed in Batala town where one of the area's oldest churches at City Road was torched and some shops vandalised by Hindu extremists, Christians and police said. Another church in the region was also reportedly destroyed.
Police said the violence began when "some Christian youths forcibly" started "downing shutters of shops" across town, apparently in reaction to the controversial Hindu publication about Jesus Christ.
Activists of Hindu radical groups Bajrang Dal, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena objected to the closure of shops and soon groups of both communities went on a rampage and looted shops, police said.
Six shops were also ransacked in the ensuing chaos, according to witnesses. Additionally a Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation bus and another private bus that were were reportedly stoned and its windows shattered. Angry crowds then burned six scooters and motorcycles, witnesses said.
At least 10 persons were injured in clashes in the busy Batala localities of Circle Road, Dera Road, Chakki Bazaar and Gandhi Chowk. A State Bank of India ATM at the railway station was also broken, officials told BosNewsLife. Several Christians were among those detained in the clashes.
The situation in Dhariwal town, 12 kilometers from Gurdaspur, was also tense as Christian youths armed with sticks could be seen riding motorcycles and threatening people with "dire consequences" if they opened their shops.
In Bathinda, a large number of Christian men and women - led by the town’s Christian Welfare Association president, and priest, George C. Masih - blocked roads and rail traffic. Protesters stopped the Kisan Express train at the Bathinda railway station for about an hour.
They also marched through town from the Railway Colony Methodist Church to the main bus station shouting slogans against “erring” persons and seeking strict action, paralysing traffic. The protesters ended their demonstration after local officials came to receive a petition demanding justice.
AICC and several churches expressed concern about the situation, saying they would hold a peace and prayer rally and expressed their solidarity towards detained Christians and those "injured" and condemned the "burning of two churches" in Punjab.
They also condemned the usage of picture of Jesus Christ for a Hindu festival. The tensions are the latest in a series of incidents involving minority Christians and Hindu activists in India. It comes at a time when several Hindu groups protest against the spread of Christianity and missionary activities in the predominantly Hindu nation of over one billion people. (With editing by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos).