|Police guard the site of disputed land near Pushpa Mission Hospital in Ujjain in Madhya Pradesh state on Feb. 2. Tensions are running high in the area. (Photo supplied)
Four Catholic priests have been charged with rioting and criminal intimidation in India's Madhya Pradesh state over a land dispute involving a hard-line Hindu group.
The priests of Ujjain Diocese resisted an attempt by a Hindu group to take over a piece of land in front of a Catholic Church-run hospital in Ujjain, a city with a Hindu temple and a site for pilgrims.
"No one has been arrested yet," an official of Madhav Nagar police station, where the case has been registered, told ucanews.com on Feb. 1.
The dispute revolves around a plot of land adjacent to Pushpa Mission Hospital, a 44-year-old facility with 200 beds. Hospital authorities say the local civic body gave the public land to the hospital for use as a parking area and to maintain its greenery.
However, some members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the pro-Hindu party that runs the state government, attempted to take over the land on Jan. 27, accusing the church of illegally occupying the site. However, the church obtained a "stay order" to maintain the status quo from the Madhya Pradesh state High Court.
Gagan Singh, who led the crowd and claimed to be the owner of the public land, is the assistant to the local BJP parliamentarian for the area.
Church officials say charges against them were framed under political influence.
Tension intensified after revenue officials arrived to measure and demarcate the land. A crowd also claimed a portion of the land.
Attempts were made to demolish the boundary wall despite resistance from church officials, diocesan public relations officer Father Antony Nirappel told ucanews.com.
As priests and hospital staff created a human shield to block a bulldozer and called police, the crowd began to throw stones at the hospital. Police arrived and dispersed the crowd.
"But soon we were informed that police have charged four of us with rioting and criminal intimidation of people," said Father Nirappel, one of the accused.
He said it was "just another instance of harassment" in the state, where Christians regularly face violence and harassment at the hands of Hindu groups who want to make India a Hindu-alone nation.
The accused include hospital director Anthony Pulickamandapam, who said the hospital has ownership documents for "every inch of land we possess" and a receipt from the civic body for paying mandatory fees to use the land, he said.
The hospital has been using the land for at least four decades. "We do not know how an owner has suddenly come to claim public land," said Father Nirappel, adding that they "only want a competent authority to certify its rightful owner."
Police are guarding the area to maintain the status quo after Singh threatened to organize a Hindu religious ritual to assert his ownership over the land.
The case has been posted for a hearing on Feb. 5 in the High Court.
Father Nirappel said the case is part of a well-organized plan by Hindu groups to tarnish the image of Christians by portraying them as law breakers.
The state of 72 million people, where Christians form less than one percent, has a history of anti-Christian violence.
It witnessed 21 violent attacks on Christians and hundreds of cases of harassment, threats and intimidation by Hindu groups from January to November 2017, according to data published by voluntary group Alliance Defending Freedom.