Church groups in India have hailed the murder conviction of a key leader accused of leading mob attacks on Christian targets in the Kandhamal jungles of eastern Orissa state two years ago - writes Anto Akkara.
The court, set up to try cases relating to the widespread anti-Christian violence, has declared that Manoj Pradhan was guilty and sentenced him to seven years imprisonment for the murder of a Christian, Porikit Digal.
The court handed out the same penalty to Prafulla Mallick, another accused in the murder of Digal, who was killed in front of his wife and two children, the eldest being four years-old at the time.
"We hope this judgment will instil confidence in our people [Christians] in Kandhamal," R. Christopher Rajkumar, executive secretary for the Commission on Justice, Peace and Creation of the National Council of Churches in India, told ENInews.
The violence targeting Christians followed the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, who was shot dead in August 2008 at his centre in Kandhamal. The slain Hindu monk had been leading a vociferous campaign against people converting to Christianity.
Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the killing, Hindu extremists said it was a Christian conspiracy. They targeted the Christians, who account for 20 percent of the district's population of about half a million.
In the subsequent violence, which continued unabated for weeks, more than 90 Christians were killed, over 5,000 Christian houses and 300 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched leaving more than 54,000 Christians displaced.
"This [conviction] will encourage them to testify in the courts fearlessly," said Rajkumar, adding that a high-level delegation from the NCCI, a grouping of 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches in India, will visit Kandhamal soon to assess the situation.
Meanwhile, Christian groups and networks have praised the courage of six year-old Lipsarani - daughter of the slain Digal - whose court testimony contributed to the conviction of her father's killers.
Though Pradhan has been charged with seven murders and eight cases of arson attacks on Christians during the anti-Christian violence campaign, he had been acquitted in six of them. Reports said witnesses turned "hostile" due to threats from Hindu extremists.
While under detention, Pradhan had been elected to the Orissa legislature as a candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party, a party said to have Hindu nationalist tendencies, in the April 2009 state election in Kandhamal.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]