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Freedom of belief
6 min read

The month of May(hem) in Manipur

On the 27th May, Archbishop Justin Welby tweeted about the violence unfolding in Manipur. Belle Tindall re-winds the clock to May 3rd and tracks the events that led to his tweet.

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen &Unseen 

A church interior glowing red as parts of its furniture burn. A man walks down the aisel
A video still of a church interior on fire, during violent clashes in Manipur, India.
Open Doors.

 

A note to our readers: this article includes reports that some readers may find particularly distressing. 

On 27th May, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted about his concern at what has been, and still is, unfolding in Manipur in India. He wrote, 

‘I’ve been distressed to hear about the attacks on the indigenous tribal Christians of Manipur, India, and of the churches that have been destroyed in recent weeks. 

Kailean Khongsai is training for ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, and is from Manipur. I join him in praying regional authorities would protect all minority groups, including Christians and their places of worship, and that justice and peace would prevail.’ 

In doing so, Archbishop Justin pointed the world in the direction of those who are facing extreme pressure, discrimination, and violence in their home of Manipur. Therefore, allow me to paint a fuller picture of what has been happening (largely unnoticed) for weeks now – let’s rewind to May 3rd.  

May 3rd  

On the streets of Manipur, a state in the northeast of India, indigenous communities protested the (apparent) impending accreditation of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiti community. Let me provide some context as to why this would be a development to protest about.  

Manipur is a self-governed state. A state that is home to the Meiti community, who make up around 53 per cent of the population, and other indigenous communities – the largest of which are the Kuki community, to the south, and the Naga community to the north. There is, and has long been, friction between these neighbouring people groups. The Kuki and Naga communities, being minority groups, have Scheduled Tribal status, thus ensuring that they have a right to protection (particularly regarding the reservations they call home) and representation. The Meiti people, being the state’s majority demographic, do not have such a status… yet.  

Despite their legal protection, the Kuki people, in particular, have already faced ongoing evictions from their homes in the hill regions that they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Their expectation is that this is only the beginning. The fear is that, if the Meiti people were to be granted a similar Tribe status, it would result in the Kuki people further losing the right to keep and protect their spaces in both the hills and the forests. It would also pave the way for the Meiti people to assert more societal dominance, as they would be entitled to increased governmental representation; the imbalance would no longer be countered. 

 And so, on May 3rd, people from both the Kuki and Naga communities took to the streets and marched for ‘tribal solidarity’.  

Within a matter of hours, a peaceful protest was transformed into riotous violence as the people marching were met with a wall of resistance. Since that Wednesday afternoon, whole villages have been burnt down, around 15,000 people have been made homeless, hundreds have been injured, the price of essentials has risen to unprecedented levels, schools and public facilities have been closed, internet has been suspended, and although numbers are proving a challenge to confirm, it is thought that anywhere between thirty to seventy people have been killed. Some media outlets are perceiving this violence as the rumblings of an impending civil war; while the Kuki and Naga communities are placing the entirety of the blame upon the Meiti people, The Meiti community are directing all blame toward the tribal communities. And the violence continues to rage on.     

May 4th 

Recent footage has emerged of a particularly heinous incident taking place on 4th May, one that has re-caught the world's attention and thus prompted Prime Minister Narendra Modi to break his silence, declaring that the attack has 'shamed India'. 

Two women, both of whom belonging to the Kuki community, were taken from a police van, stripped, publicly paraded and sexually assaulted in broad daylight. Two men, the younger woman's brother and father, were killed while trying to protect them. It is now being reported that this attack was carried out by armed Meiti men, none of which were arrested until astonishingly recently, more than two months after the attack took place. 

Manipur is imploding, and the violent ramifications are devastating.

But there is just one more piece of context that undergirds the Archbishop’s tweet, one more thing to note about the societal dynamics at play in Manipur: while the Meiti community are a majority Hindu people group, the various indigenous groups are almost entirely Christian. As such, Open Doors have reported that the women who were subjected to to the afore-mentioned attack were Christian women.   

A complex ethno-religious conflict  

The goings-on in Manipur are anything but simple; and so, it is not my intention to reduce the geographic, political, and historic complexities of this conflict, nor to wholly define it as a war between religions. Following Archbishop Justin’s lead, it is with particular caution that I speak of violence being inflicted particularly on Christians in Manipur, acknowledging that it is not the only identity marker that is proving to be targetable.  

Nevertheless, it is being widely reported that Christians are being singled out; their Christianity used as a target to aim at, their identity wielded as a weapon against them. Whether it be as the means or the end, as the goal or merely the tactic: it is happening.  

 According to further Open Doors’ reports, derived from their partners in Manipur, around three hundred churches have been burnt down thus far, one of which still had people in it when it was set alight. A further one hundred public Christian buildings have been destroyed, while one thousand homes which were owned/inhabited by Christian people were ruined, while neighbouring properties remained untouched.  

And it isn’t only the Kuki Christians who are facing such discrimination, the (very few) Meiti Christians are also facing particular difficulties as a result of their unusual ethno-religious identity. Noticing this, one Indian news publication is reporting that from the perspective of the Meiti Hindus, Meiti Christians are somewhat of an oxymoron, personified. It is believed that to be Christian is to have converted to a tribal way of living (assimilating the Kuki and Naga people), and therefore comes with assumptions of deep betrayal. And yet, the publication also observes that ‘if their [Christian] faith is making them feel insecure in the valley, it has not come to their rescue in the hills either. The Kukis have made no distinction between them and other Meiteis’. They are, subsequently, a community that are ‘sandwiched’ in conflict.  

While the conflict is undoubtedly spilling over ethnic and religious lines, Manipur has just become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian. In yet another part of the world, it is now a hazardous faith.  

And so, back to Archbishop Justin’s tweet.  

The need to be seen  

One only needs to spend thirty or so seconds tracking the comments generated by this particular tweet to get a sense of how powerful it is to be seen. To be noticed when in distress, to be acknowledged when in chaos, to be advocated for when in danger.  

In many ways, social media is a genie that we wish we were able to squeeze back into the bottle. And as justified as such feelings often are, in this case, as in many others in our recent history, it has proved to be a way in which our eyes are opened to what is happening in the most remote corners of our world. Archbishop Justin has publically called for protection, justice, and peace, and in doing so, has made it difficult for the conflict to continue to rumble on unnoticed.  

It is now on all of us to refuse to look away. The people of Manipur, Christian and otherwise, need us to continue to look in their direction. 

 

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War and peace
3 min read

Letter from Lviv

Loss, resilience, and a hope one day to count blessings not missile intercepts.

Iryna Dobrohorska is Christian Aid’s Country Response Director for Ukraine.

A woman stands at the back of an armoured military vehicle, the door of which is open.
Iryna stands by a displayed military vehicle.

Ukraine is only two years older than I am. My personal history is intertwined with Ukraine’s history. Instead of the carefree fun I should be having as a young Ukrainian woman, on Saturday I was reflecting that my last two years have been dominated by war since Russia began its full-scale invasion. Over those 730 days, I have witnessed the best and worst of humanity.  

I was evacuated from Kyiv to the sounds of explosions nearby, fearing I would be raped or murdered by Russian soldiers if they entered the capital. I’ve wept over losing university friends in combat. I’ve despaired at how Ukrainian writers are being deliberately targeted by the Kremlin.  

But I also observed the speed that we Ukrainians built trust and social connections with unknown people. I was proud of the warmth of my hometown, Lviv, which welcomed people from the east of the country - it crushed the myths that Russia was trying to ooze into our national life that we were a divided country that didn’t have the right to exist except as part of Russia. 

Not just in Lviv but all over Ukraine. This month in Odesa I felt the same warmth extended to elderly displaced people when I hosted a visit to our local humanitarian partner Heritage Ukraine by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. He saw for himself how the team, funded by the Scottish faith charity Blythswood, had opened their doors and their hearts to these traumatised strangers facing an uncertain future. 

One of those displaced people, Nadia, told me: “We want to go home, but our home is being shelled. At least here we stay with dignity.”  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face.

t’s a scene of resilience I’ve grown accustomed to as I’ve crisscrossed the country to play my small part in the astonishing humanitarian effort powered by the UK public’s incredibly generous donations.  

The Iryna I saw in the mirror in 2021 wouldn’t recognise the young woman I see looking back at me today.  

In Kherson, I was recording the stories of illegal detention of civilians to the sound of artillery fire. In Mykolaiv, my window view was an apartment block with the roof blown off and clay-coloured water was the only drinking option.  

I never thought that I would learn the types of weaponry used in modern warfare. Now I know the difference between the motorbike sound of a drone from the missile whistle above my head followed by the clank when it detonates nearby.  

Security awareness is an everyday reality in Ukraine. We often debate during an alert whether choosing to sleep in our own beds instead of going to a shelter may turn out to be our last night. A six-months pregnant teacher friend of mine in Kyiv was killed in her sleep from a drone strike.  

The violence inflicted by Russia is not becoming any easier in the prolonged war we now face. Yet I also sense the paradox that we’ve accepted the war becoming everyday normality and so has the rest of the world. 

Global attention today is not focused only on Ukraine. A host of other crises are taking precedence in the need for a humanitarian response. My biggest fear is that the long-term nature of our crisis reduces global actors to sympathizing observers.  

What I do know is that my generation of young Ukrainians who have lost so much will not allow that to happen. More than ever, I feel the need for a just and resolute peace for Ukraine. With the help of our international friends, the day will come when those who have suffered can go back to rebuild their homes and communities.  

As I move on to engage further in Ukraine’s recovery efforts, I feel privileged to have worked for Christian Aid as part of the humanitarian response. I’m most proud of our role in being a catalyst for local people to help themselves by setting their own community priorities in the kind of support they need, giving them a sense of dignity and self-worth.  

It’s that kind of world that I dream about - where one day I will count my country’s blessings instead of how many drones and missiles were intercepted the night before.