Indian Christians attacked
Thousands of Indian Christians in the Indian state of Orissa have been attacked and forced from their homes in the past few weeks. Reports suggest over sixty people have been killed, including four church leaders, and women have been raped. Scores of church buildings have been demolished and hundreds of homes destroyed.
Christians in Orissa, on the east coast of India, have been persecuted by Hindu extremists for many years. These most recent attacks were sparked by the assassination of a senior Hindu leader and four of his bodyguards.
Laxmanananda Saraswati, 80, was assassinated in Kandhamal, Orissa. He was a senior figure in the nationalist VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) and had recently called for India to become a Hindu nation.
At the time of his death he was leading opposition against the conversion of Hindus to Christianity and is said to have received death threats warning him to stop interfering with Christian missionaries.
Local Christian leaders have denied involvement in the murder and emphatically condemned it. Despite this, however, groups within the Hindu community quickly stirred up anti-Christian feeling at a series of demonstrations which in turn led to violent rioting.
Local police and state officials suspect that communist Maoist rebels – who have been active in central and eastern India for several years – were behind the assassination. The attackers were certainly well equipped, grenades and guns being used in the assault on Saraswati’s residence.
However, the VHP and its allies made inflammatory speeches alleging that Christians were responsible. A protest rally called by the VHP rapidly escalated into murderous violence against the perceived Christian community, including Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, Baptists, Seventh Day Adventists and others.
Christian groups throughout India have condemned the attacks and pledged support for local Christians who appear to have been singled out as political scapegoats.
The media have limited access to Orissa at present, and reports from the region are still somewhat confused. The All India Christian Council has provided some information while at the same time calling on the Indian government to restore order in a lawless situation. Barnabas Fund, missionary groups and aid organisations with people in the area have also succeeded in getting messages out to the wider world.
What is already clear, however, is that damage to property is extensive. Scores of church buildings have been demolished and hundreds of homes destroyed. Other Christian institutions – including schools, offices and prayer houses – have been vandalised, looted or burned. Buses and other vehicles have been set alight.
Many Christians have suffered, especially in rural areas where mobs are attacking whole villages. Church leaders have been beaten up and women raped, and as many as 10,000 may have fled into the jungle for safety, without food or protection from the monsoon rains. Current reports of the death toll range from 12 to 36.
Some of the stories emerging from the area are truly horrific. A young woman attempting to stop the extremists attacking children at a Christian orphanage was thrown alive into the burning building, where she died. A paralysed man in another village was unable to escape from a fire and was burned to death. A pastor was killed and his body cut in pieces.
The response of the state government appears to have been patchy at best. At first the rioters blocked roads to hinder the progress of government forces. Later it was reported that curfews had been imposed, but these have not been consistently enforced. Additional protection has been provided in the towns but not in the countryside.
While Christian leaders appeal to the national government for help, thousands of Christian schools and colleges throughout India have closed in respect for the dead and to protest at the lack of effective protection for Christians.
The intensity of violence in Orissa began to decrease in the early days of September but reports of anti-Christian attacks are still trickling out from several districts and the area continues to be tense. Many Christians are still thought to be hiding in the jungle and thousands are said to be gathering in relief camps.
Some reports allege that Christians returning to their villages after the violence are being met by local Hindu leaders and forced to sign papers renouncing their Christian faith and converting to Hinduism.
International condemnation and internal pressure on India’s central government have percolated down to state level. The Orissa government has responded to a Supreme Court order to control the violence by banning a planned procession of Saraswati’s ashes.
This move has reassured Christians who feared that a procession would provoke further violence. India’s Minister of Home Affairs, Shivraj Patil, has also visited the area most affected by the violence, and promised compensation for the victims.
In the USA, seven members of the House of Representatives sent a letter to India’s ambassador expressing concern, and the US Commission on International Religious Freedom called for a stop to the violence and greater accountability within India.
Dr Joseph D’souza, President of the All India Christian Council, said, ‘The global community is alarmed at the breakdown of law and order in Orissa, and rightly so. The widespread, continuing attacks on innocent Christians and violations of their human rights is unprecedented in India’s history. We welcome the concern of US politicians and all global citizens who believe in freedom of religion. As a proud Indian, I’m grieved that our democratic ideals are being hijacked by religious extremists’.
More help needed
Last Christmas, Hindu extremists launched a previous attack on the Christian community in Orissa. On that occasion too, many churches and homes were burned and several people killed. Many who fled at the time are still living in a refugee camp, and much necessary rebuilding is still to be done.
Barnabas Fund has been assisting Christians in Orissa since that time. Over £58,000 has been sent to provide food aid, clothes, replacement bedding, medical expenses, trauma counselling and school materials for children, and to help repair churches. Sadly these needs have once again become immediate and urgent.
Orissa has a population of 36.7 million. About 87% of the population live in villages and one third of the rural population owns no land other than homesteads. 25% of Orissa’s population is tribal. A large majority of the population (94.35%) are Hindus. Christianity is practised by 2.4% of the population, followed by Islam (2.0%); other religions comprise less than 1.0%.
Barnabas Fund can be contacted by telephone on 0800 587 4006 from within the UK or +44 1672 565031 from outside (please quote project reference 21-723).