For the past one and a half years, the Christians of Sanjay Gandhi Nagar Leprosy Colony in Secunderabad, Telangana have been anxiously waiting to continue construction of their church building. In July 2019, religious extremists from the region had opposed the building of the church under false allegations, because of which the church construction work was halted.
In India, patients afflicted by leprosy are mostly confined to remote colonies alloted by the Government where many are left to live a crude existence. Taking away anything more from them would amount to gross injustice in their already difficult lives. Such a violation was inflicted upon the Christians living in SGN Leprosy Colony, when they were deprived of their right to freely worship. This colony is home to around 80 Christian families, amongst a total of 200 families. The 80 Christian families comprise four generations of Christians who have been living in the leprosy colony.
The various religious communities in the leprosy colony were each alloted plots of land for use as separate places of worship. For decades, the Christians gathered regularly in a make-shift “Church shed”. Not only was it difficult for everyone to fit inside the shed, but the rains made it worse. The Christians thus began discussing the need to erect a proper structure where they could gather to pray. Each of them joyfully contributed towards the Church building fund.
The families in the colony share similar stories of disease, poverty and prejudice. Because of the stigmatisation that comes with leprosy, most of them are unable to find stable jobs. It took the Christians almost fifteen years to collect a considerable amount and begin construction of the Church building in June 2019! However, their joy was short-lived as the construction work was stopped not long thereafter.
Just a month after construction began, some religious extremists in the colony filed a petition in the High Court claiming that the construction was illegal and that the Christians had encroached upon the land. The Court unfortunately was inclined to pass an interim stay on the construction and issued notices to the concerned authorities. This crushed the spirit of the Christians who had prayed and worked for so long to see their dream of having a church building come true.
Following the stay order, the extremists have continually taunted the Christians and on two instances they attempted to physically attack the elders of the Christian community. The extremists also attempted to create communal disharmony by warning the Christians not to raise any church structure higher than the temples in the colony. Shivani*, one of the Christians, shared, “We fear for the safety of our families. We also worry about the current state of our incomplete church building since the rains continue to cause damage to it.”
In the past several years, the Christians had been subjected to hostility. Their prayer services were regularly disturbed by loud noises, intentionally created to disrupt the Christian meetings. In an effort to discourage their faith, many times, the Christians were falsely accused of forceful conversions. Any sincere gesture of friendship from the Christians was scorned and viewed with suspicion.
The attempt to stop the Christians from building their church, in addition to all the unlawful disturbances to the practice of their faith, is a direct violation of their constitutionally guaranteed Right to Religious Freedom. Those opposing the Christians have no basis for their accusations other than petty jealousy and an attempt to create communal tension. ADF India is working closely with the Christians and representing them in Court to ensure that the stay order is vacated and that they can complete the church building and peacefully gather to worship in accordance with their faith.
*Name changed to protect the identity of the individual