INDIA: FOUR DIE IN CHRISTMAS RAMPAGE BY HINDU EXTREMISTS
Attackers in Orissa state kill Christians, damage or destroy more than 50 churches and 200 homes.
NEW DELHI, December 28 (Compass Direct News) – At least four Christians are feared dead, many injured and more than 50 churches and 200 homes are either destroyed or damaged in Orissa state in anti-Christian violence that began Christmas Eve.
According to media reports, tensions between the Hindu majority and tiny Christian minority erupted over conversions to Christianity. One home that rioters set ablaze belonged to Radhakant Nayak, a Christian member of India’s parliament.
Additional police presence has diminished but not stopped the violence, despite a curfew. That rioters defied the curfew, prompting Christian leaders to question government commitment to their protection.
“It is clear that local police and the state government have not been able to protect the Christian minority community,” Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council (AICC), told Compass. “While Orissa’s leaders claim they were prepared and are fully committed to stopping the violence, we have doubts.”
Some 1,000 Christians and human rights activists marched with lighted candles in New Delhi December 27 to protest persistent tension in Orissa’s Kandhamal district villages perpetrated by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP). The rally followed a meeting between denominational leaders with Shivraj Patil, India’s federal interior affairs minister, who reportedly promised to visit the affected villages.
The Christian leaders’ delegation included members of the AICC, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, Evangelical Fellowship of India and Christian Legal Association.
“Sadly, the delegation was not satisfied with the promise, as violence continues, and the government didn’t seem to have any specific plan to ease the tensions or compensate the victims,” the Rev. Abraham Sahu, an AICC leader in Delhi, said in a statement.
Pretext of Revenge
Tensions in Kandhamal began on Monday (December 24) while the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Brahmani village was pitching a tent for Christmas celebrations.
A mob led by the VHP launched a fierce attack on Christians and their shops to protest the planned celebrations. Local Christians say VHP leader Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a prominent opponent of Christians for more than a decade, was behind the attack.
“It was Saraswati who instigated the mob to attack us,” said a Christian from Brahmani on condition of anonymity. “Later, Christians learned that Saraswati was coming to launch more attacks. Sections of Christians tried to stop him on the way, which resulted in a clash between the two groups, following which the VHP claimed that their leader was hurt and announced that now Christians would be attacked as revenge.”
But VHP’s state general secretary, Gauri Prasad Rath, denied the attacks were carried out by local Hindus.
“It is the general public that is doing it. After all, a Hindu leader was attacked by a mob of Christians,” he told Compass.
Orissa’s 36 million population includes fewer than 900,000 Christians.
When told that Christians were attacked first in Brahmani village, Rath said the Christians were setting up chairs for Christmas celebration on “Hindu land.”
Asked if public land is Hindu land in that village, he replied, “One must come to the village to see if it is not.”
Some Christians retaliated by torching some Hindu homes.
Priests in Hiding
While police Superintendent Narsimha Bhol told Compass that only one person is confirmed dead, local Christian leaders cited unconfirmed reports that the death toll was higher.
Jacob Pradhan, a Christian leader in Kandhamal district, told Compass that at least four Christians have been killed and more than 50 churches and 200 houses razed or damaged.
Telephone outages and VHP roadblocks made confirming reports “extremely difficult.”
Roman Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak and Bishop Samsan Das and other church leaders issued a memorandum to state chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The memorandum stated that in Barakhama village, 400 houses had been gutted and five people murdered.
In addition, seven churches had been destroyed in Sirtiguda village, four churches in Phiringia, seven in Phulbani Block, four in Ruthungia, three in Kallingia, one each in Dalagam and Irpiguda, and two in Tikabali, the leaders’ memorandum reported.
The Hindustan Times newspaper reported that many priests hid in forests to evade attacks. The church leaders’ memorandum stated that most of the priests, pastors and religious sisters in Kandhamal district have taken shelter in the forest, where Hindu fundamentalists are searching for them.
The Asian Age newspaper said three people were believed to be killed by police gunfire in Brahmini village yesterday. The victims were not identified, however, and their religious affiliation could not be ascertained.
Bhol, the police superintendent, said officers would ascertain the toll only after normalcy returns. The conflict centers in the Baliguda sub-district of Kandhamal, where most of the population is tribal or aboriginal.
The villages of Brahmani and Barakhama are believed worst hit by the violence. John Varghese, regional coordinator of the Philadelphia Fellowship Churches in India (PFCI), told Compass that churches were also burned in Kudupakia, Gosukia, Depakheta, Sirthiguda, Burangia and Budrumaha villages.
Most of the affected churches belong to the Roman Catholic, Church of North India, Baptist and Pentecostal denominations.
The office of Christian relief and development organization World Vision in Daringbadi village, also in Orissa, has also been looted and vandalized. Attacks occurred even after authorities deployed 20 platoons of police, each made up of 30 to 50 officers, and imposed an area-wide curfew.
Orissa's Steel and Mines Minister Padmanabha Behera resigned Friday, citing “moral responsibility” for the communal violence in parts of the state, according to Indo-Asian News Service.
The Rev. Dr. Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese, told Compass that he feared a repeat of the December 1998 attacks on Christians and their property in Gujarat state’s Dangs. These attacks were followed by the burning alive of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in January 1999 in Keonjhar district in Orissa state.
Dangs witnessed a 10-day spate of anti-Christian violence from December 25, 1998, to January 3, 1999, following a massive rally where provocative speeches were allegedly made against Christians by the Hindu Jagran Manch (Forum for Revival of Hindus).