Indian Hindus Build Temple on Church Property

Monday, December 13, 2004

Temple erected in Orissa on land donated by deceased church members.

by Vishal Arora

DELHI, December 13 (Compass) -- Hindu villagers have constructed a temple on the grounds of St. John’s Church of England in Jatni in the eastern state of Orissa, India, triggering a knotty battle over the rights of minority Christians.

The 150-year-old church sits on land formerly owned by church member Alfreda Elen Hardy, who died in 1989 without making a will.

Alfreda Hardy was survived by her brother Gerald Hardy, who became the natural heir to the property but was content to leave it in the hands of the church. However, Gerald also died without making a will in July 1991.

The property consists of four large tracts of land, including several paddy fields. St. John’s church was built on one portion of the land.

After Gerald’s death, some of the land was taken over by the police to be used as a sub-police station. After some time, the police vacated the land without informing the Christian community. The land was then used by the local administration for its office.

In 2002, a Hindu temple was constructed on a portion of the land about 50 meters from St. John’s church. In October this year, the Hanuman Mandir temple added a new layer of stones to the church boundary wall, effectively claiming the property wall as their own.

Conflict has arisen primarily because the temple is built on land that was given to the church, even though this transfer was not spelled out in legal documents.

However, clashing worship styles are also a problem due to the close proximity of the Hindu temple. Like most, the Hanuman Mandir temple holds daily arati prayer services, in the morning and late evening. Loudspeakers are used for arati prayers, and the temple bells ring constantly -- for perhaps 15 to 20 minutes -- until the service has finished. This noise often interferes with worship taking place next door at St. John’s.

The Hanuman Mandir temple is open for long hours each day, providing facilities for a constant stream of worshipers. Adjacent land-owners have also taken over other parts of the property for personal use.

The Jatni United Christian Community (JUCC), the social wing of St. John’s, recently wrote to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) complaining of police inaction over encroachment onto the grounds of the church.

S.N. Mohanty, secretary of the JUCC and advisor of the Christian Burial Society in Jatni, told Compass, “Due to the police inaction, local Christians initially raised the issue of encroachment with the NHRC on December 7, 2002, by sending a written complaint. In response, the NHRC referred the matter to the district collector, who in turn referred it to the local superintendent of police.

“In his report to the NHRC, the superintendent did confirm the encroachment upon the said land. But he remained silent on whether any action should be taken.”

Church authorities have now asked the NHRC to intervene. They want the district administration to evict the illegal occupants.

In their letter, the JUCC also asked that the property originally owned by Hardy be legally awarded to the Christian community at St. John’s, who cared for her while she was sick, performed her burial ceremony and now maintains her grave.

The church also hopes to use the property for the office of the Christian Burial Society, which maintains the only Christian burial ground in the district. They also plan to establish a home for the elderly, an orphanage and a branch of the Y.M.C.A.

The Indian Succession Act of 1925 says that when the deceased has left no will and has no direct descendants or living blood relatives, the properties should be divided equally among those who have the nearest degree of kindred. The JUCC claim to the land is based on the nearest kindred clause.

“In this case, in lieu of relatives, the [local Christian] community was kindred to the Hardy family at the time of their need,” the letter states.

A Christian lawyer who spoke to Compass said the church has a strong legal case under the Christian Succession Act, if it can prove that the local Christian community was in the nearest degree of kindred to Alfreda and Gerald Hardy.

“Although we are greatly disturbed by the illegal construction of the Hindu temple in front of the church, we being a minority community cannot raise the issue on our own,” Purnendu Pattnaik, secretary of the St. John Resurrection Society for Social Development, told Compass. “We have therefore requested the NHRC to intervene and solve the problem.

“We hope the rights of the Christian community will be restored soon. We have been living in peace and communal harmony with our Hindu brothers, and we will continue to do so,” he added.

JUCC advisor Dr. B.N. Naik said, “Encroaching upon a church is a violation of the human rights of the local Christian community, and concerned government authorities must come to the help of the minority community.”