Pope Francis appointed a new archbishop Saturday in an Indian state where hundreds of churches have been destroyed in an ongoing wave of inter-ethnic violence.
The pope named Fr. Linus Neli as the new Archbishop of Imphal, an archdiocese based in the capital of the remote northeastern state of Manipur.
Fr. Neli succeeds Archbishop Dominic Lumon, who turned 75 — the age when diocesan bishops must tender their resignations to the pope — in June.
Lumon, who has led the archdiocese covering the whole of Manipur state since 2006, has been the most prominent Catholic voice since violence broke out in the state in May.
In a June 15 account, he said he was “deeply saddened” by the conflict between the predominantly Hindu Meitei people and the largely Christian Kuki people, which has claimed the lives of 175 people, injured 1,118 more, and seen 386 religious sites targeted by arsonists, according to the most recent official figures.
In his 11-page analysis, Lumon lamented what he called a “complete collapse of the constitutional machinery in the state,” which he said had left the population in “fear, uncertainty, and a general sense of hopelessness and desperation.”
Troops were deployed in May with orders to “shoot on sight,” but Lumon noted in September that the conflict was ongoing.
“It has not stopped. One here, one there, every day things are happening, there are shootings, violence,” he told the charity Aid to the Church in Need. “We are hoping that the central government intervenes. If it says ‘stop,’ I feel that the violence will stop, but if nobody intervenes it will linger on for many more months.”
Despite a continuing internet shutdown in the state, video footage has emerged appearing to show gross human rights violations. Police believe that two of the most widely shared videos — one depicting women being paraded naked by a mob and another showing a man set on fire — were likely recorded on the same day and at the same location, a day after the conflict broke out.
Tensions had been rising for months in Manipur — one of India’s smallest states — when thousands of people gathered May 3 for a rally in the Churachandpur district, largely populated by the Kuki people.
They were protesting against moves to include the Meitei community under India’s Scheduled Tribes category. They argued that the step would give the Meitei people — who account for more than half of the state’s population — greater access to land, jobs, and other resources at the expense of other ethnic groups.
The Meitei live in the state’s more developed central Imphal Valley but are not permitted to settle in the surrounding hilly regions, which constitute 90% of the state. The hill regions are reserved for the local tribal population, who are also allowed to live in the valley.
The May 3 demonstration was organized by the All Tribal Students’ Union Manipur, a group associated with the Kuki people, who are a hill tribe. The gathering descended into violence, though it is unclear precisely what sparked the skirmishes.
Over the next few days, armed mobs attacked cars, homes, and churches. The fighting displaced tens of thousands of people.
Archbishop Lumon said in his June assessment that it was “wrong to categorically say” that the disorder was a religious conflict. But he noted that the clashes included religiously motivated attacks.
“Each of the over 200 Kuki villages attacked had either one or multiple churches, depending on the number of Christian denominations,” he wrote.
“About 249 churches belonging to the Meitei Christians have been destroyed. All these destructions took place with precision within 36 hours of the start of violence.”
In a possible glimmer of hope, a Supreme Court-appointed judges panel recently directed officials in Manipur to identify and protect all religious buildings.
Archbishop Lumon was appointed coadjutor archbishop of Imphal in 2002, when he was 53 years of age. In a 2019 interview, he said that the archdiocese was sending priests and religious to serve in other places, and older missionary clergy were being succeeded by young locals.
Archbishop-elect Neli, 66, was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Imphal in 1984. He most recently served as the archdiocese’s judicial vicar and director of a retreat center in Imphal.
Neli is described by local media as a “well-respected figure” within the Church and wider society.
According to the Apostolic Nunciature in India, the Imphal archdiocese has 137 diocesan and religious priests, and 112 religious sisters, serving 90,785 Catholics out of a total population of 2.7 million.
Although Catholics are a minority, the Church is a “formidable and significant contributor in the educational, social, and healthcare sector” of the state, according to local media.