India: violence in Orissa
The spate of anti-Christian violence that began, following the killing of a Hindu leader on August 23 in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, continued on September 8, despite a stream of meetings by Christian and rights groups with high government officials.
On September 8, at least 20 houses were burned and 70 Christian families forcibly ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism in separate incidents in the eastern state.
According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI), more than 20 houses belonging to Christians from the Orissa Follow-Up ministry (OFU) in Khajuripada village in Kandhamal were set on fire. The Rev. Dr. D.B. Hrudaya of the OFU told EFI that the whereabouts of the 20 families whose houses were destroyed were unknown and that he was ‘deeply concerned’.
Earlier in the day, around 70 families in four villages — Bogapada, Boriguda, Kuttiguda and Danniguda — in Kandhamal were forcibly ‘reconverted’ to Hinduism by Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) extremists.
On September 7, a mob of around 2,000 people attacked a church during the morning worship service in Bhudainjal village in another district, Kalahandi, reported EFI. While the church members were able to flee, the attackers caught hold of two church workers and assaulted them.
‘When the three-months pregnant wife of one of the men tried to rescue her husband, one person in the mob kicked her in the stomach’, EFI reported. ‘She was admitted to the Kathiguda Government Hospital.’
In the afternoon, the mob burned a daycare centre in nearby Bamnichatra village. The crowd also stole items worth around 10,000 rupees (US$225) from the centre before setting it on fire.
There were also reports of Hindu extremists poisoning the water at relief camps in Kandhamal.
‘An attempt to poison the drinking water source of the relief camp in Habaq High School in G. Udayagiri village, Kandhamal, was foiled by an alert security guard at 9.00 pm on September 2’, EFI said in a statement.
The water of another relief camp in Vijay High School in Raikia, Kandhamal, was reportedly poisoned on September 3. Six Christians fell ill from the toxicity and were taken to hospitals, according to EFI.
The violence in Orissa began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on August 23 in his ashram (religious centre) in the Jalespeta area of Kandhamal district. A Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killings, but the VHP continues to blame Christians.
The Global Council of India Christians has recorded at least 56 deaths so far, and the rights group believes the toll could cross 100. Hundreds of houses and churches have also been burned or destroyed in the violence, forcing thousands to hide in jungles or take shelter in relief camps set up by the state government.
The Catholic Bishops Conference of India said in a statement on September 8 that relief camps needed more facilities and protection for the people who were ‘still in the grip of fear and loss’.
‘In some villages people continue to live under threat’, the conference said in a statement. ‘They think they could be attacked any time.’
Representatives of the Christian community in India have met with the president, the federal interior minister, the leader of the ruling United Progressive Alliance, Sonia Gandhi, Orissa Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik, and several other political leaders to urge them to ensure protection of Christians in Orissa.
At the same time, the VHP defied a government ban to organise a gathering at Saraswati’s ashram in Jalespeta to pay homage to its slain leader over the weekend.
The VHP was planning to take the ashes of Saraswati in public procession from village to village in the whole of Orissa on September 7, but the state government banned it after the Supreme Court on September 5 ordered it to take all measures to protect the lives and property of Christians.
On September 8, the state government banned all rallies and processions in connection with Saraswati’s killing, as it has to inform the Supreme Court about the security measures taken to end the violence on September.
Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal last Christmas. The violence, in which at least four Christians were killed and 730 houses and 95 churches burned, lasted for more than a week from December 24.
The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an attack on Saraswati allegedly by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.
Orissa is ruled by a coalition of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Biju Janata Dal party.
Christians make up 2.4% of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 36.7 million people.