Thursday, December 28, 2006

Goa Christmas Celebrated Amidst Tight Security

Reported Terrorist Threat Fails To Dampen Christmas Vigil Celebrations In Goa

By Bosco de Sousa Eremita

December 28, 2006

PANAJI, India (UCAN) -- Catholics in the western Indian coastal state of Goa celebrated Christmas with traditional devotion and pomp, but amid unprecedented security.

On Dec. 14, Israel issued a terrorism alert, warning of a planned Al Qaeda attack on tourists in Goa during the Christmas and New Year holidays, the peak of the tourist season in the former Portuguese colony. The advisory, issued to Israelis visiting Goa, said information pointed to "a concrete threat." The next day, the issue was raised in the Indian parliament.

Every year some 2.1 million tourists visit Goa. About 60 percent are Britons, Germans and Swedes. An estimated 2,500 Israelis also come each year, the state being a popular stop on their post-military-service tour circuit.

On Dec. 22, Goa Police Director General B.S. Brar told media the administration would deploy additional security forces and hold regular coordination meetings with police officials from neighboring states. Goa, whose capital, Panaji, is 1,910 kilometers southwest of New Delhi, shares borders with Karnataka and Maharashtra.

As Christmas neared, police focused on verification and surveillance of former convicts, rowdies, suspected extremists and recent arrivals to the state. They also met with Church authorities, alerting them of tightened security around churches, especially during Christmas Eve midnight Masses.

Despite the heightened concern, all the state's churches reported that midnight Masses were held without incident. The most popular venue, Don Bosco High School in Panaji, had a record number of visitors.

Journalist Alexandre Barbosa, a Catholic who attended the midnight Mass on the school grounds, said people came as early as 11 p.m. because of the security threat. He found it "odd to see gun-toting security personnel occupying vantage positions."

Nonetheless, Salesian Father Romulo Noronha, main organizer of the ceremony, told UCA News on Dec. 25 that the turnout of 3,000 people was the biggest in recent years. "Night-goers preferred to come here," he said, pointing out that other churches held Mass indoors.

Our Lady of Immaculate Conception Church, also in Panaji, moved its midnight Mass indoors after police asked church officials to request that parishioners not bring bags and said they wanted to install metal detectors at all entry points. Since the church complex has several entry points, explained Father Antimo Gomes, the parish priest, it was easier to hold the Mass indoors and install the metal detectors only at the church doors.

Police visited Our Lady of Hope, in the coastal area of Candolim, thrice before the midnight Mass, reported Father Jesus Rodrigues, the assistant parish priest. The police permitted one entry point and one parking lot, he told UCA News, adding that priests appealed to the parishioners not to confront police, lest it "unnecessarily" lead to "a law-and-order problem."

According to the parish priest, Father George Aguiar, the service went "more smoothly than ever," because the parking was handled more efficiently.

Filipe Dias, who organized the preparations for Christmas services at St. Alex Church in Calangute, a popular Goan beachfront area, told UCA News the terrorist threat did not dampen the Christmas spirit there.

"We had fewer chairs, expecting a smaller crowd because of the security restrictions, but the church courtyard was brimming, with people standing," Dias said, adding that the midnight celebration went on "without a hitch."

Meanwhile, in a Christmas message, Archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrao of Goa and Daman urged laity to use the occasion to spread the message of peace and to work for genuine human development.

Reproduced by Konkani Catholics with permission from UCAN (

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