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Hindu attacks on Indian Christians spark crisis

BHUBANESWAR, India (BP)–The murder of a Hindu swami, reportedly by Maoist terrorists, has unleashed a frenzy of violence against Christians falsely accused of the killing in Orissa, a state in eastern India.

The anti-Christian attacks have drawn national and worldwide condemnation from religious and social leaders. Some authorities have called for the Indian government to send troops to Orissa, where the Hindu-dominated state administration reportedly has been unable to stop the killing despite a curfew and reported “shoot to kill” order against rioters in the worst-hit areas.

More than 20 men, women and children had been beaten, hacked or burned to death by Aug. 28, five days after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad sect. Police said a Maoist insurgent group active in the region carried out the assassination of the swami and four of his followers. The group itself also reportedly claimed responsibility.

But Hindu extremists blamed the killing on Christians in Orissa, who comprise about 2.4 percent of Orissa’s 36.7 million people. The Christian total includes up to 500,000 Baptists.

The swami’s body was carried through villages in the area while Hindu activists reportedly shouted such slogans as “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions!”

Hindu mobs, stoked by the false accusation, have attacked and burned hundreds of homes, churches, schools, convents and orphanages in the days since, driving thousands of terrified Christians into the forests. The violence has unfolded mainly in Kandhamal District where the swami was killed, a heavily tribal area where many Christians live. Attacks have since spread to other parts of Orissa.

“All Christian villages [are] empty in Kandhamal as Christians, old and young, sick and pregnant mothers [are] hiding in forests exposed to the non-stop monsoon rains without food,” said Swarupananda Patra, general secretary of the All Orissa Baptist Churches Federation, in an Aug. 26 message to the Baptist World Alliance (BWA).

“Now we have no request except prayer from our Baptist world as we do not know how to face tomorrow.”

P. Ramesh Kumar, principal of the Balasore Technical School in Kandhamal, told the alliance, “We are all under immense danger and threat from these groups …. Please continue to uphold us in your prayer particularly for the safety of Christian brothers and sisters who are now hiding themselves in jungles.”

BWA General Secretary Neville Callam said in a statement, “I am disappointed by the false claim that Christians have responsibility for this murder and I am saddened by the atrocities being visited on Christians in Orissa.”

Callam added: “I appeal to the governing authorities in India 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.”

Pope Benedict XVI added his voice to the call for peace Aug. 27, saying he “firmly condemn(s)” the violence against Christians, which reportedly has included the rape and killing of several Roman Catholic nuns working in schools and orphanages in Orissa.

Early in the situation, Orissa government authorities downplayed the violence, then claimed it was under control. By Aug. 27, however, the Orissa High Court reportedly was calling for the deployment of army troops.

The same day, the opposition Congress Party in Orissa, which is secular, moved for a no-confidence vote against the ruling Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition. The motion was to be considered Aug. 29, according to reports. Meanwhile, the BJP coalition itself appeared to be fracturing amid the crisis, with some prominent members reportedly withdrawing support from the state government.

National Christian and Muslim leaders in India called for immediate action. Sunil K. Singh, bishop of the Church of North India, told Compass Direct news service, “[T]here has been a total breakdown of law and order resulting from barbaric communal attacks by anti-Christian elements on innocent and peace-loving Christians, their priests, nuns, religious workers, their churches and organizations.”

Roman Catholic Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the archbishop of Mumbai, called on the federal government to send troops to Orissa to protect the thousands of Christians fleeing Hindu attacks.

“It is a shocking and shameful situation,” he told Indian press services. “The good image of our country is being destroyed by such incidents…. The state government and police have failed to build confidence among the minorities. If need be, there should be President’s (federal) rule in the state.

“The killers [of the swami] should be brought to book, but why target innocent Christians? I would appeal to the people to calm down and not make the situation more volatile.”

The National Commission for Minorities also demanded “immediate” federal intervention to stop the “outrageous communal violence in Orissa.”

All Christian schools in India reportedly will be closed Aug. 29 to protest the violence.

Orissa has seen many attacks on Christians in the past, particularly in tribal areas where Hindu groups have accused Christians of “forced conversions” of Hindus or bribing villagers to be baptized. Militants burned hundreds of churches and homes last December.

In the most notorious incident in recent years, extremists burned alive Australian Baptist missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in 1999. Staines’ widow, Gladys, publicly forgave the attackers and continued her work in Orissa until four years ago.

Staines told the Indo-Asian News Service Aug. 27 she is “deeply saddened” by the renewed sectarian violence in Orissa. “Hopefully, people will learn to respect each other and live in communal harmony across the religious divide. I pray that the government is able to bring peace to the region.”

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