Christians demand action over delayed church reconstruction

Approximately 12,000 Christians participated in protests across the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh on 18 June demanding that the state government acts swiftly to resolve an ongoing dispute regarding the reconstruction of a church. 

The rallies were organised by the Arunachal Pradesh Christian Forum (ACF) and protesters demonstrated in front of the District Commissioner’s offices in at least six districts across the state. 

The church in question lies in the Tawang district of Arunachal Pradesh, a region dominated by the Buddhist Monpa community. In September 2020, the reconstruction of the church was stopped by two local Buddhist groups who claimed that the structure was illegal. The pastor of the church, Joseph Singhi, was subsequently arrested on grounds of illegal construction and later released on bail. 

In November 2020, the ACF demanded that the government quickly resolve the issue. The government then formed a three-member committee, headed by State Environment and Forest Minister Mama Natung, and directed it to submit a report within six months. However, the report was not submitted until June 2022. 

The report recommended that the Christians comply with a Supreme Court order from 2009 that directed states to ensure that ‘no unauthorised construction should be permitted in the name of temple, mosque, church or gurudwara on public streets, public parks or other public places’. Following the publication of the report, on 17 June 2022, the President of the ACF Toko Teki rejected the recommendations of the panel and raised practical concerns about the proposal to relocate. 

Christian residents in the area maintain that the church had stood in the same plot since 1999 and they had started reconstructing it in 2015, only after the government had ignored their repeated requests for land allotment since 2003. 

In a letter addressed to the Chief Minister in 2020, the ACF stated that “to quote the [Supreme Court] ban on unauthorised construction is unjustified” as the church is “not abutting public road/street, nor encroached upon public utility spaces obstructing the movement of people, not obstructing drain, not causing traffic jam and has been functioning smoothly since its inception with Christians gathering there only on Sundays.” The letter also pointed out that the Supreme Court order had mentioned that the state would look into matters on a case-to-case basis for structures that existed before the 2009 ruling, which is the case here.

CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW calls on the government of Arunachal Pradesh to act swiftly to resolve this ongoing dispute. Debates concerning places of worship have raised religious tensions in India significantly in recent months, and a failure to act will only embolden those responsible for promoting religious intolerance and disunity. It is essential that the government provides a just and speedy resolution to avoid further communal disharmony.”