With less than a month to go for Christmas, a prominent Catholic church in northeast Delhi’s Dilshad Garden was gutted in a major fire Monday morning, prompting allegations of arson and foul play.
The main hall of St Sebastian’s Church caught fire around 6.30am with the altar, statues, the holy Bible and the Cross reduced to ashes within minutes. The estimated losses were pegged at over Rs. 1 crore.
Church authorities alleged the fire was an attempt at triggering religious polarisation ahead of the Delhi polls, likely early next year.
Delhi Catholic Archdiocese spokesperson Savarimuthu Sankar told HT that three fire tenders reached the church an hour after flames broke out and police arrived only at 9am, by when the fire had been doused.
Community leaders also said kerosene was found in the attic, pointing at foul play. “The security guard took a breakfast break at 6am. When he returned 30 minutes later, he noticed thick smoke and informed Father Antony Francis, the pastor, who called the fire department,” said Sankar.
Delhi Archbishop Reverend Anil Couto has written to PM Narendra Modi and home minister Rajnath Singh, seeking a judicial probe into the fire.
The incident quickly took a political angle with several leaders offering their help. Congress leader Arvinder Singh, former Delhi minister Haroon Yusuf and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal visited the spot and assured their support for a speedy probe and financial compensation. Local BJP MP Manoj Tiwari also visited the church and said he would raise this issue in Parliament.
Joint commissioner of police Sanjay Baniwal said a case of mischief by fire or explosive substance was registered. “We are waiting for the forensic science laboratory report to establish the exact cause of fire,” added Baniwal.
Hundreds of people later assembled outside the church and prayed for peace and communal harmony. They will hold a protest outside the Delhi police commissioner’s office on Tuesday.
The church at Dilshad Garden, New Delhi was gutted by fire on Monday morning. (HT Photo)