BHUBANESWAR, India (BP)–Violence against Christians in India’s Orissa state persisted more than two weeks after the Aug. 23 assassination of a Hindu swami sparked mob attacks on Christian villages, churches and homes.
The extent and brutality of the attacks have attracted the attention of national authorities in India. The nation’s Supreme Court ordered an investigation. On Sept. 8, the Orissa state government banned all public rallies and gatherings related to the situation and promised to report to the Supreme Court by Sept. 11 on measures taken to restore order.
India’s Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, called the anti-Christian violence a “national shame” and threatened to use military force to stop it. He also has promised financial compensation for Christian families who lost their homes in the violence.
The number of victims beaten, hacked or burned to death since the start of the attacks reportedly topped 100. Tens of thousands of Christian villagers terrorized by Hindu extremists continued to hide in forests -— without adequate food and water -— or huddle in relief camps guarded by police.
Despite curfews and the arrests of hundreds of rioters in recent days, many Christians have reported that local police have acted as little more than spectators as Christian homes are attacked. Others have said local authorities appear to fear the size and fanaticism of organized mobs.
Meanwhile, reports of forced “reconversions” of tribal Christians to Hinduism have emerged from several areas of the eastern state.
The trouble began after assailants with automatic weapons murdered Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sect, and four of his followers. Police suspicion immediately focused on a Maoist insurgent group active in the region. The Maoists publicly claimed responsibility for the attack Sept. 1, but Hindu extremists continue to blame the killings on Christians.
Enraged by the accusations against Christians, Hindu mobs have attacked and burned hundreds of homes, churches, schools and orphanages, primarily in tribal districts where many Christians live. Christians, including up to 500,000 Baptists, reportedly comprise about 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population of 36.7 million people.
One Christian organization estimated that between 100 and 150 people, mostly Christians, have been killed. Unconfirmed reports have put the number of victims much higher.
“Reports are also coming in of sickness among those who have escaped to the forest regions,” a Christian worker said. “Medical aid and assistance has been denied and relief workers are not permitted into the area.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has asked for longer-term action. “Post-riot humanitarian aid does not obscure the need for both Orissa state and the Indian central government to take action to address persistent sectarian tensions in Orissa, and to prevent future eruptions of violence,” said a statement from the commission, which advises the U.S. government on global religious freedom issues.
Early in the crisis, Baptist World Alliance General Secretary Neville Callam appealed to the Indian government to “intervene to save the lives of the many who are being victimized in the current crisis. Respect for the principle of religious liberty and the sacredness of human life requires nothing less. I also appeal to all Baptists worldwide to pray God’s protection for our brothers and sisters in Orissa.”
Some Indian political and religious leaders have called for imposing federal rule and sending troops to Orissa state, where the ruling Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition government has been unable to stop the violence.
Christian schools in India voluntarily closed Aug. 29 to protest the violence, and Christians in many parts of India participated in days of prayer and fasting to draw attention to the crisis. Many moderate Hindus have joined in public appeals for peace, which one Roman Catholic cardinal called “the sign of a new era.”
Christian representatives have met with the India’s president, the federal interior minister, Orissa’s chief minister and other political leaders to ask for protection of Christians in Orissa.
“The growth of Hindu nationalism in India, both in its democratic political form and its mob-terrorist form, threatens to put the country on a path of sectarian conflict and religious violence,” warned Raymond J. De Souza, a Catholic priest and observer of India’s religious scene. “The more extreme Hindu nationalists want to overturn India’s official secularity in favor of an explicit Hindu identity. In such an India, the public life and even presence of Muslims and Christians would be severely circumscribed.”
In Orissa, Hindu extremists continued to issue threats. Praveen Togadia, leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) group that blamed the swami’s murder on Christians, warned Sept. 7 of nationwide trouble if the killers aren’t immediately arrested.
Earlier, he called for creation of a commission to investigate Christian missionary activity in Orissa and to strictly enforce anti-conversion laws. Hindu groups in Orissa -— where many tribal and lower-caste Hindus have decided to follow Christ -— often accuse Christians of bribing or tricking poor Hindus into converting to Christianity.
In the wake of the latest riots, reports have come from several areas of Hindus pressuring Christians to “reconvert” to Hinduism if they want to return to their homes.
“If you want to be in the village, you have to reconvert back to Hinduism,” said Sam Paul, national secretary of the All-India Christian Council, in a press interview. “It is a severe problem and many pastors are suffering. Some 25 or 30 pastors who I know personally are in hiding.”
Orissa’s churches are asking Christians around the world to pray for an end to the violence, for the safe return of Christians in hiding, for freedom to practice their faith -— and for an end to the “reconversion” campaign.
“The people of Orissa need to know that Christians in India are peace-loving,” one Christian worker said. “It is in our Holy Scriptures. It is required. Now the state of Orissa is in chaos because innocent, peace-loving people have been attacked. May God comfort and provide healing and food for those who are hurt and hungry.”
Orissa has seen many attacks on Christians in the past, particularly in tribal areas. Militants burned hundreds of churches and homes last December. In 1999, extremists burned alive Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons.
Compiled by Baptist Press from international sources.