//After Riots Shatter Goa's Religious Harmony, Church Sees New Situation

After Riots Shatter Goa's Religious Harmony, Church Sees New Situation

PANAJI, India (UCAN) — Nine-year-old Ahmed Sheik stood silently watching his classmates play on the grounds of Guardian Angel High School.

His principal, Father Andrew Silveira, says Sheikh prefers to stand silently after sectarian violence erupted March 3 in Goa. "He was a jovial kid but (the rioting) has affected him," the Catholic priest told UCA News March 10.

Hindu fanatics targeted Muslims in three days of violence that affected Curchorem and Sanvordem, two towns in the tiny western Indian state. No one was killed but several people were injured in the violence that flared after a court stayed the demolition of an illegal Muslim prayer house March 1.

Father Silveira, whose school is in Curchorem, said Sheik was one of the first Muslim students to return to school after the three days of violence and looting. The priest said Muslim children in the school "are (now) taking their time about playing with others."

Curchorem, 50 kilometers south of the state capital of Panaji, was the site of the first sectarian rioting ever reported in Goa, a former Portuguese colony where Christians, almost all of them Catholics, form close to 27 percent of the population. Muslims form a little less than 7 percent but dominate business in the state. Hindus form the rest the population. Panaji is 1,910 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.

According to Father Silveira, even the Catholic school staff "are facing a new situation" in the wake of the violence. They are careful not to ask Muslim children any personal questions, he reported, adding that "even Hindu friends are worried of their Muslim classmates and keep asking about them."

The Catholic priest said he spoke about peace and brotherhood during a morning assembly when the school reopened a few days after the riots. He also said he stressed that no one has the right to take away another’s belongings, and urged any student who took any other person’s belongings to return them.

Other Catholics agree that they are facing a new situation after the riots. One of them, Aninha Rocha, 79, told UCA News they used to believe sectarian violence happened only elsewhere and could not happen in Goa. After the attacks, she is convinced that Catholics could be attacked next.

Rocha said she now fears Goa would become another venue for bomb blasts after police on March 10 arrested a Muslim with two hand grenades, two detonators and explosives at a railway station in the state.

Father Valerian Vaz of Goa archdiocese’s Council for Social Justice and Peace says maintaining communal harmony has become a "challenge, which we have to face," because "things are not the same anymore."

A deliberate effort is needed to safeguard communal harmony, he said, citing this harmony as the "hallmark" of Goan culture. Various religious communities have lived interdependently in the state for ages, he added.

The Church, he added, is constantly working for communal amity through interreligious programs. "Even our body is called a council for peace."

More than 200 people gathered for an interreligious prayer meeting March 13 at Sanvordem. It began with the garlanding of the Bible, the Qur’an and the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most well-known volumes of Hindu Scripture. They prayed over readings from these holy books.

Shaik Aleem, 53, a Muslim, told UCA News that what hurt his community most was the betrayal of trust. "I do not know who to trust now," he said, adding that people he thought were close to him did not come forward to help during the riots. His family has run a motor parts shop for the past 60 years. "I don’t know why we were attacked. Our ancestors are from Goa," he added.

According to civil rights campaigner M.K. Jos, the riots "signify the beginning of an effort by Hindu communal forces to curb minorities’ assertion of rights." He said this also has political overtones.

Jos saw similarities between the Goa riots and the 1992 demolition of a disputed mosque in northern India that sparked off nationwide Hindu-Muslim riots. The sentiments generated then helped the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party) form the federal government.

Even with Hindus forming almost two-thirds of Goa’s 1.3 million people, the BJP was able to form a government in the state only in 2000, after engineering a split in the ruling Congress party.

Catholics continue to play a significant political role in the state.

Rocha and other Catholics blame the BJP for vitiating Goa’s communal harmony. However, Catholics admit the pro-Hindu party came to power because many of them voted for it in the 2000 election. A Church official, who sought anonymity, said he too had voted for the BJP to teach "a lesson" to the Congress party for taking Catholics for granted and encouraging corruption.

"After the riots, people have realized it was better to vote for the corrupt than the communal," said Surendra Furtado, a politician.