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ERLC urges U.S. action on Orissa violence

WASHINGTON (BP)–The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission has called on President Bush and congressional leaders to intervene to bring an end to anti-Christian violence in the Indian state of Orissa.

The request for action by the White House and Congress came in Sept. 11 letters from Richard Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Land also wrote to Ronen Sen, India’s ambassador to the United States, asking for his country’s government to become more involved by quickly aiding members of the minority Christian community.

Land called for intervention by the American and Indian governments as violence against Christians continued in Orissa, a state on India’s east coast, following the Aug. 23 assassination of a Hindu swami. Though Maoist insurgents took credit for the killing, Hindu extremists blamed Christians. They mounted mob attacks on churches, as well as homes and villages populated by Christians.

More than 100 people reportedly have been beaten, hacked or burned to death since the mob violence began. It is estimated tens of thousands of Christians have fled their homes, many remaining in seclusion in forests and others in relief camps with police guards.

Saying the Indian national government had not done enough, Land asked Bush “to bring the ‘bully pulpit’ of the White House and the considerable influence of the U.S. government to bear to pressure the government of India and the world community to stop this escalating and unacceptable violence and persecution against innocent Christians in Orissa and to bring about a just and equitable end to it once and for all.”

He asked for a similar effort from Congress in letters to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D.-Nev.; Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif.; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D.-Md.; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R.-Ky.; and House Minority Leader John Boehner, R.-Ohio.

In all of the letters, Land said the ERLC agreed with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s call for the Indian government “to make more vigorous and effective efforts to stem violence against religious minority communities. This includes fulfilling a 2004 pledge to criminalize inter-religious violence, and engaging in the preparation and training necessary to ensure law enforcement officials can quell outbreaks of communal violence effectively.”

Land is a member of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a nine-member bipartisan panel that advises the executive and legislative branches of the federal government on religious freedom conditions overseas.

In a Sept. 3 release, USCIRF also said Orissa’s state government had failed to protect religious minorities. Christians reportedly make up about 2.4 percent of the state’s 36.7 million people. Among Orissa’s Christian community are as many as 500,000 Baptists.

While the ERLC was working on a response to the persecution in Orissa, the Southern Baptist entity received a request for action from a church in North Carolina. New Covenant Fellowship, a Southern Baptist congregation in Snow Camp, N.C., emailed a resolution its board of directors approved Sept. 7. The resolution urged the ERLC to call on the U.S. and Indian governments to act to protect and to aid those affected by the violence in Orissa.

“We are grateful that our brothers and sisters at New Covenant Fellowship share our burden for the persecuted Christians in Orissa,” said Barrett Duke, the ERLC’s vice president for public policy and research. “Their heartbreak for this distant part of the body of Christ is both moving and inspiring. It is encouraging to know that many others in [the Southern Baptist Convention] feel the same pain and outrage that we feel about this senseless, hate-filled violence.”

Manmohan Singh, India’s prime minister, has threatened to send in the military to quell the violence. He has said the government would provide financial aid to Christian families whose homes were destroyed by mobs.

The violence began after the murder of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his followers in the Hindu national group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Hindu extremists have burned not only houses and churches, but schools and orphanages.

Hindu militants have continued to make threats in Orissa. Praveen Togadia, leader of the VHP, requested the establishment of a commission to investigate Christian missionary activity in the state and to 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. There have been several recent reports of Hindus seeking to coerce Christians to “reconvert” to Hinduism in order to return to their homes.

Orissa has been plagued by anti-Christian violence in the past. Extremists burned hundreds of churches and homes in December. In 1999, militants burned alive Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons.
Compiled by Baptist Press’ Washington bureau chief Tom Strode.

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