Earlier this month, a Church in Chains partner (unnamed for security reasons) was able to deliver financial aid to a group of fifty pastors from the Meitei ethnic group who’ve been living in precarious circumstances since ethnic violence erupted in the state in May 2023.
The security situation in the state continues to be extremely tense and the Indian Army has maintained a significant presence numbering thousands of troops to prevent further outbreaks of violence between the majority Meitei tribe and the minority Kuki tribe. The Meitei tribe is predominantly Hindu and lives mostly in the state capital Imphal and throughout the Imphal valley, while the Kuki tribe is predominantly Christian and lives in the surrounding hills.
The pastors who received the recent aid distribution are Meitei Christians who face opposition from both Meitei Hindus and Kuki Christians. During the violence in May, at least one hundred churches (many of them Kuki) and the homes of over 1,700 Christians were destroyed or seriously damaged. Since the violence, over 40,000 people have been living in temporary accommodation in relief camps (most of them Christian Kukis but some Christian Meiteis also).
Overlooked and despised
Church in Chains explored ways to send aid to Meitei Christians after becoming aware of their isolated situation and reading comments by O. Kumar, the president of Meitei Christian Churches Council Manipur, who told Christianity Today magazine, “We are wondering who will help Meitei Christians. When relief comes for Christians, it all goes to Kuki Christian areas. When relief comes for Meiteis, it all goes to Hindu Meiteis, who allege that we Christian Meiteis are getting help from Kuki Christians. It is a double blow for us, as we are overlooked and despised on both sides.”
These prejudices led to Arambai Tenggol and Meitei Leepun, two militant Meitei groups, attacking and vandalising Meitei churches during the violence in May. Since the May riots, Meitei Christians have been bullied by non-Christian Meitei who have issued death threats if they do not convert back to Hinduism or Sanamahism, the Meitei polytheistic indigenous faith that co-exists with Hinduism. Being Christians, they are perceived as being on the Kuki side and accused of violence against their own community.
“Most of the Meitei people thought that all Meitei Christians supported the Kukis, so they wanted to completely wipe out Meitei Christian churches,” said a Meitei Christian leader.
Pastor’s house attacked at Christmas
On 21 December in Awang Leikinthabi village of Imphal West, Meitei pastor Premkumar Chingsubam found his house, which he had decorated for Christmas with a tree and artificial snowman, vandalised. “I felt very unsettled when I saw the way they had destroyed the Christmas decorations,” the pastor told New Lines global affairs magazine. The village committee called a meeting the next day to consider the incident. Members of the mob attended the meeting, admitted attacking the pastor’s house and then fired shots before attacking Pastor Chingsubam, who was hospitalised with a bruised forehead and fractured ribs and hip bone.
Another Meitei Christian leader told New Lines that he was beaten up by a mob that had pressured him to sign a conversion affidavit from Christianity to Sanamahism. He reasoned with local leaders, promising them that he would stop conducting prayer meetings and would keep his faith to himself, but when he left Manipur for medical treatment, his house was vandalised and locals threatened to kill him.
Even though he was assured of safety by village leaders when he returned and sought refuge at his relative’s house, he was again beaten up by a mob because he refused to sign the conversion document. He managed to escape with his wife and children to the state of West Bengal. “I will not return to Manipur,” he said.
The pastor said that he had stopped all worship activities for a while and had started worshipping Pakhangba (one the most prominent Sanamahi gods) but has not signed the conversion affidavit. “I could not remove Jesus from my heart. When the mob dragged me out of the house, they shouted that I would be killed like Jesus,” he said.
Many Meitei churches have stopped meeting together since the outbreak of violence and instead meet online.
(Christianity Today, New Lines)
Image: Church in Chains