By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, JAN. 27, 2008 (Zenit.org).- India’s long-suffering Christians were dealt a strong blow in a series of attacks during the Christmas period. Hindu extremists attacked Christian celebrations in eastern India, sacking and burning a number of village churches, the Associated Press reported Dec. 26.
The persecution took place in the state of Orissa, which according to Associated Press, is an area with a history of violence against the Christian minority. It is the same state where, in 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines and his two sons, were burned to death as they slept inside their vehicle after a Bible study class.
Following the Christmas attacks, which continued in subsequent days, nearly 700 Christians took shelter in government relief camps, the Times of India reported Dec. 29. The paper said that two police officers were suspended for failing to prevent violence against Christians on Christmas Eve. The state government also transferred a district administrator for failing to take action.
More details on the attacks came in a Dec. 31 press release by the episcopal conference of India. “There have been continuous onslaughts on Christians by the fundamentalists in the State since Christmas and yet adequate protection have not been provided to the minority community which continues to live in fear and anxiety,” the declaration lamented.
According to the statement, in the period of Dec. 22-27 one large parish church and some 50 village churches were destroyed. In addition, 6 convents, 3 presbyteries, 2 minor seminaries and 6 hostels were attacked and damaged by the extremists. In one village, Barakhama, no less than 400 houses were burned and five people were murdered.
The bishops’ conference of India called for an immediate investigation by the federal government, along with compensation for the injured and relatives of those killed.
Additional data on the Orissa attacks came in a Jan. 2 report by Compass Direct News.
A memorandum submitted to the National Human Rights Commission put at nearly 90 the number of churches burned, along with the deaths of 9 people. About 600 houses were burned or vandalized, and overall some 5,000 people were affected by the attacks.
The memorandum was signed by Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, Joseph D’Souza, president of the All India Christian Council, and other Christian leaders.
Federal authorities were quick to condemn the attacks. On Jan. 1 the Times of India reported that India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, wrote to Gladys Staines, widow of the Australian missionary killed in 1999, to assure her the government would take action.
“I assure you that the government will take all necessary steps to safeguard the fundamental rights and liberties of all sections of our society and protect their religious freedom as enshrined in the Constitution,” Singh wrote, according to the Times of India.
The leader’s letter came after Gladys Staines wrote to the prime minister following the December violence in Orissa. She is currently working to finish her husband’s project of setting up a cancer hospital in Baripada.
The December offensive in Orissa was not accidental, according to a report published Jan. 18 by the Indian Catholic News Service. The National Minorities Commission said that the outbreak of violence was organized and a result of an anti-Christian atmosphere in the state.
During the last few years an anti-conversion campaign has been conducted in the area by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and Sangh Parivar. The commission also accused local authorities of not taking appropriate stems to control the situation.
Further background on tensions in Orissa came in a reflection by Santhosh Sebastian Cheruvally, published Jan. 14 on the Web page of India’s episcopal conference.
In May, 2005, VHP leader Swami Laxmananand Saraswati, organized a large Hindu celebration in Orissa to mark the reconversion of nearly 350 tribal Christians. Further adding to tensions, a pro-Hindu organization Jan Kui Kalyan Samiti, has organized protests against privileges reserved for Dalit Christians.
Cheruvally also gave a detailed explanation of the ideology motivating the extremist Hindu. They are influenced by an ideology called Hindutva. Arising as a reaction against the colonization of India Hindutva tends to consider all outside values, whether Western or specifically Christian, as enemies of India.
The Orissa events capped off a year that saw a rise in attacks on Christians. Ajay Topno, a Christian missionary belonging to the Trans World Radio, was killed for his Christian activities among poor people in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand, reported the All India Christian Council on Sept. 21.
On Oct. 26 Hindu extremists attacked five nuns, the All India Christian Council reported the same day. The attack took place about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) outside the city of Indore, located in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. The nuns, Franciscan Clarist sisters, were seriously injured and had to be rushed to Indore for treatment.
One estimate put at four cases a week the rate of attacks against Christians in 2007. The calculation came in a report published Nov. 17 by the All India Christian Council.
The violence suffered includes attempted murder, armed assault, sexual molestation, illegal confinement and grievous injury. The total of 190 attacks recorded by the All India Christian Council from the start of 2007 up to Nov. 16 compares with 178 the previous year, and 165 in 2005.
The list is not exhaustive, the article explained, because some of the church groups or pastors did not report the attacks to the police, for fear of violence against the families of innocent people.
In addition to the physical violence Christians also suffer from intolerance, social discrimination and ostracization. Often local authorities deny permission to hold community meetings, and there are both official and informal bans on Bible sales and other Christian literature.
They are not the only ones concerned about the rising trend of attacks. On Sept. 19 Compass Direct News published an article commenting on the U.S. State Departament’s 2007 Report on International Religious Freedom. The report gave the federal government credit for improving respect for religious freedom.
Nevertheless, Compass Direct News warned that the incidence of anti-Christian violence is much higher than available statistics indicate. Also of concern is the way in which minority groups in some states are under pressure. The article cited the secretary-general of the Christian Legal Association, Tehmina Arora, who singled out seven states — namely Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Orissa, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh — as being where Christians face the brunt of Hindu extremism.
The total population in these seven states is more than 354 million people, of which 4 million are Christian. Arora also pointed out that it is only a small minority of Hindu extremists who are the cause of the violence, with the tacit approval of some local authorities.
Anti-conversion laws are in force in three states: Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Orissa. Such laws in the states of Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh are still to be implemented.
The problems did not finish with the December attacks in Orissa. On Jan. 21 a news article posted on the Web page of the bishops’ conference of India reported that the neighboring state of Chhattisgarh is also witnessing atrocities against Christians.
Around 100 attackers armed with sticks and petrol bombs attacked a prayer meeting led by Pastor Mohan C. Thomas and Jose Kajur in the village of Bothli, in the Durg district. Around 2,500 people had gathered at the Jan. 16 open-air prayer meeting. Our prayers are needed more than ever to support Christians in India.