Police in New Delhi have launched a special investigation into a fire that broke out in a Catholic church on Monday morning, following protests by priests, nuns and parishioners.
The fire in St Sebastian church was discovered by a security guard, Robert Philip.
“I was going to the washroom at around 6.30 am at the backside of the church and found smoke coming out of the dressing room of the priest,” he told UCAN India, part of the Union of Catholic Asian News.
“I quickly opened the lock of the church and then the door of the dressing room.” Flames poured out of the room, he said. “I rushed for help and in the meantime everything was taken over by fire.”
The fire destroyed the altar and much of the church’s interior, but no one was injured.
According to local Christians the police did not initially take the fire seriously.
“The police took their own time to come. They said a forensic team would be arriving soon, but they have not yet reached,” lay leader John Dayal said on Tuesday. ”The police are not serious about this crime,” he continued.
More than 5,000 Christians gathered in front of Delhi Police Headquarters on Tuesday to demand action by the police to determine the cause of the fire and to arrest those responsible for it. Priests and lay people believe the fire was deliberately started, blaming it not on communal tensions but on “anti-social elements outside the community”.
Parish priest Fr Anthony Francis said that he saw traces of kerosene at the church. The police have retracted an earlier statement that the fire was caused by an electrical fault.
Fr Savari Muthu Sankar, spokesman for the Delhi archdiocese, said that a memorandum demanding a judicial inquiry had been sent to the governor of New Delhi, to the Home Minister and to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. A delegation to the governor also asked for the church to be repaired before Christmas so that its 800 families could celebrate midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.