Indian Muslim leaders urge government to end mosque-temple disputes

By Rupam Jain

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Top Muslim leaders in India called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government on Friday to end disputes over mosques and Hindu temples, saying the minority Muslim population was feeling under threat and their places of worship should be protected.

In the latest such contentious case, a court this week allowed Hindus to pray in a 17th century mosque, which Hindus say was built after the destruction of a temple.

"Many people in the country are claiming that some of the historic mosques were constructed after destruction of temples, but these are false accusations," said Maulana Khalid Saifullah Rahmani, president of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.

"We urge the government to put an end to such disputes and save the secular fabric of the nation," he told reporters, flanked by other leaders and clerics. The Muslim community was feeling "threatened and suffocated" in their own country, he added.

The home ministry did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

The fight over claims to holy sites has divided India, which has a Hindu majority but also the world's third-largest Muslim population, since independence from British rule in 1947. Critics accuse Modi and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of pushing a pro-Hindu agenda and promoting discrimination against Muslims, but he says his government does not do so.

Hindu groups including the BJP's ideological parent say several mosques in India were built over demolished Hindu temples under the Mughal empire.

A Hindu mob pulled down one such mosque in the northern city of Ayodhya in 1992. Modi inaugurated a grand temple there last month, fulfilling a decades-long BJP pledge months ahead of general elections due by May. The temple, at the place where many Hindus believe God-King Ram was born, was built after a Supreme Court order in 2019 awarded the site to Hindus.

"We understand that the legal victory in Ayodhya ended Muslim claims over one religious site but now it has become a trend to question the origin of several other mosques," said Maulana Syed Mahmood Madani, a leader of Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, a council of Muslim theologians.

"We are urging the government and the judiciary to safeguard the interests of Muslims and our religious sites."

In this week's ruling on another mosque, a court said Hindus can offer prayers at Gyanvapi, in the Hindu holy city of Varanasi, after Hindu groups said an archaeological survey had found proof that the mosque was built over a razed temple.

Muslim leaders say they will challenge the order in a higher court.

(This story has been refiled to remove an extraneous word from the headline)

(Editing by Frances Kerry)