A substantial part of a catholic church in northeast Delhi's Tahirpur area was gutted when a fire broke out at its premises on Monday morning with the Christian community suspecting foul play in the incident.
Police have registered a case under section 436 IPC (Mischief) on the complaint of the church authorities.
"Samples have been picked up from the spot by the Fire Department and an FSL team. We are waiting for a report by them to ascertain the cause of fire. We have received a complaint in this regard following which we have registered an FIR and further investigations are underway," said a senior police official on condition of anonymity.
The blaze broke out at around 6:30 am at St Sebastian's Church following which the security guard informed Father Antony Francis, the pastor of the church who then called Fire Birgade.
"We received a call around 7:25 am about a blaze in the furniture. Four fire tenders were rushed to the spot which controlled the blaze by 8:30 am," said a Fire department official.
"The sanctuary, sacristy and the first floor balcony of the church is completely gutted. It seems to be a deliberate act as we could smell kerosene on the spot," said Father Stanley Kozhichira, media director of Delhi archdiocese.
Other religious leaders of the community termed the incident the handiwork of "anti-social" elements.
"It has been by anti-social elements. We are not blaming any particular group for the act but it has been done by anti-social elements. It looks to me a case of sabotage and not of short-circuit as the fuse box was completely intact," said Father Suresh.
Following the incident, a large number of people from the community gathered outside the church and prayed for peace and better sense. People were seen crying looking at the burnt remains. They later moved to the local police station where they staged a sit in and moved only after senior officials ensured speedy investigation.
A number of politicians also reached the spot and took stock of the situation.
Delhi Archbishop Anil Couto, later in the evening, asked the government to order a judicial enquiry into the fire incident at the Church in East Delhi.
He has sent a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh seeking a judicial enquiry into the incident, in which the entire interior of the church including the Altar, the Holy Bible and Cross were reduced to ashes, an official statement from Delhi Catholic Archdiocese said.
Senior officials of Delhi Police, Special Branch and Forensic Crime unit reached the spot after agitated members of the Catholic community blocked roads in the area.
The Delhi Catholic Archdiocese has alleged that the "samples retrieved from inside of the church smelled of fuel oil."
"Apart from the judicial enquiry, the government must repair the building before Christmas, ensure that policemen guilty of dereliction of duty are punished, and special police investigation teams are set up to trace the guilty," Couto said.
Condemning the incident, the Delhi Archbishop said that the "arson" in St Sebastian's Church was deplorable not just because it was an act of sacrilege and hate, but that it could happen in the national capital which is just recovering from a series of communal incidents.
Cuto alleged lapse in police action, saying a lot of time was lost and possible evidence destroyed before the police finally reached the spot.
The church, constructed in 2001, is among the biggest churches in East Delhi. It was active till Sunday night because of religious ceremonies for Catholic children receiving their first Holy Communion.
The community members and civil society have threatened to stage a protest at the offices of the Police Commissioner of Delhi on Tuesday to draw attention to the "attempts to polarise the people in Delhi which goes to the polls soon, and the continued persecution of Christians in Madhya Pradesh, Chhatishgarh and other tribal and rural areas".
Those who visited the church included Archbishops Anil Couto, Kuriakose Bharanikulangara, Bishop Jacob Mar Barnabas, some Members of Parliament, former Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and former MLAs of the area.
Image: A view of St Sebastian’s Church fire broke out in New Delhi on Monday. Photograph: PTI Photo