Christians jailed between March 9 and 14 after they were falsely charged with crimes related to an act of vandalism in central India are fighting the case anew after it mysteriously resurfaced.
The case was instituted against them five years ago.
With a widow among them, the Christians in Chhattisgarh state’s Bhelwapal village, Sukma District, were jailed March 9-14 even though one of the traditional tribal animists who falsely accused them in 2017 has since become a Christian and has explained how they were framed.
Tribal villagers who damaged a pastor’s house and church building in 2017 smashed a Hindu idol and told officers the pastor had done it. They concocted the story to justify why they had vandalized the pastor’s property.
Pastor Sodi told Morning Star News that: “A family that was hand-in-glove with the ones who brought the idol and broke it but blamed the Christians for the same has come to the Christian faith. They not only told us how this conspiracy was planned and executed to frame the Christians but are also willing to speak as witnesses before the court”.
As the Christians had registered a complaint with police, the tribal animists then planned to assault the pastor and three church members in July 2017. Word of the plot reached Pastor Sodi, who fled with his family, as did the three other Christian families.
It was reported that the assailants reached Pastor Sodi’s house at 3 p.m. on July 14, 2017, and, not finding him there, further damaged his house and the church building across the road.
Thee had been living in the house with his wife and four sons since 2008, authorities said he must not return to it or the village for more than six months. He then relocated to Sukma, where he has lived since then.
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After Christians repaired his home, he gave it to a church widow as a caretaker while he remained in Sukma. The widow was among those arrested and sent to jail in March.
The pastor alleged that the officer investigating the case in 2017 knew the animists had broken the idol but registered a case against the Christians.
Arun Pannalal, president of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum said the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum petitioned the state High Court in Bilaspur over the case, and it ordered a compromise on May 28, 2018, allowing the Christians to worship peacefully in exchange for dropping all charges against the tribal animists, with charges against the Christians also dropped.
Pannal stated further that: “The police station-in-charge went to the village and explained the court order and the repercussions of the same if it was not followed by the villagers”
Reports said that in spite of the agreement, the case was reopened at some point in 2019 or 2020 for unknown reasons.
The station pastor said the officer-in-charge of the case called him and said the Christians and the tribal animists would have to reach another compromise.
Pastor Sodi lamented: “I don’t know the reason why the case was reopened again”.
Before another agreement could be reached, COVID-19 lockdowns delayed the process, and Pastor Sodi said he didn’t hear anything from the authorities for about two years.
Earlier this year, the office-in-charge was transferred, and a new one took over. The new noticed a prospective compromise was that was pending, with the 18 Christians and the eight tribal villagers named in the First Action Report (FIR) and they presented themselves at the police station.
They were then told to appear before a judge on March 9 for the case to be resolved.
The judge said he was available only until 4 p.m as he was taken to a hospital first for COVID-19 testing from morning until 3 p.m.
Pastor Sodi observed that: “By the time police presented us before the court, hardly any time was left for any discussion for compromise. The magistrate ordered all the Christians and the eight villagers to be sent to jail”.
The Christians were charged with hurting religious sentiments and, as they have not received a copy of the FIR, it could only be assumed that the villagers are still charged with vandalizing.
While the Christian men were placed in the Sukma jail, the widow was sent to a jail in Jagdalpur, 66 miles away. The Christians were released on bail five days later, and it was unclear when the eight tribal villagers were released.
Pannalal of the Chhattisgarh Christian Forum complained further: “That’s how powers are being misused to persecute Christians. They had our moral and advisory support. People with no support languish in jails for years, and that is very sad”.
Pastor Sodi said: “After obtaining bail on March 14, the Christians were summoned to court along with the tribal animist assailants on Friday (April 29)”. We do not know for how long the case is going to be dragged. There are a lot of finances involved in appearing for court dates besides the harassment that Christians are facing for no fault of their own, but they are standing strong knowing that they are suffering for their faith”.
The next court hearing takes place in June.
Since the court order of May 28, 2018, Pastor Sodi began to revisit the village and lead regular worship services there.
In the five years since the 2017 case, seven families from the village have turned to Christ, said Bhima Sodi, a senior pastor and elder brother of Hidma Sodi.
The Sukma District and the Bastar division, in general, have been rife with incidents of Christians persecuted for their faith.