India: Protests, Violence Erupt Over Jesus Depiction

A controversial poster of Christ holding a beer can and a cigarette has sparked protests and outbreaks of violence in several provinces of India.

Two churches in Batala, Punjab were burned to the ground on Saturday by suspected Hindu radicals after a general strike called by a group of Christians turned violent.

"In most of the places the protest was peaceful but in Batala Town of Gurdaspur the situation took turn for the worst, when some youth demanded the downing of the shutters in Hindu dominated market," a report from the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) said.

"Resistance on the part of these shopkeepers led to clashes between the two communities. The violence gradually spread to the entire city when Bajrang Dal and Shiv Sena came out on the roads with weapons and indulged in arson, looting and violence."

A curfew placed on the town after the outburst was lifted yesterday.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, police arrested Dr. Pritpal Singh, the alleged publisher of the poster, and his accomplices.

According to the Times of India, one Catholic priest called for Singh's death sentence, saying, "It is not right to make fun of any religion, whether it is Hindu or Christian, as it hurts the sentiments of devotees. Therefore, whoever tries to create tension among communities should be severely punished."

Police, meanwhile, have urged people to "maintain peace and harmony in the state" while investigations continue.

The incident follows a similar controversy in Meghalaya, where the same image used by Singh was found in a primary school textbook published by New Delhi based company Skyline Publications.

The image was used in a handwriting book to illustrate the letter "I" for the word "Idol."

Catholic schools in India subsequently banned use of Skyline's publications, although other Christians have initiated legal action.

A letter from the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) called to on government officials to "take suitable action on the publishers including recommending withdrawing the license of the Publishing house or such other measures."

The group also called for an enquiry into how the image came to be printed in the books.

According to AFP, Skyline apologized for "hurting people's religious sentiments" and are in the process of recalling the books.

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