Indian Christians rally to protest against violent attacks

By Ecumenical News International
January 12, 2008

Pastor Sidheswar Digal was making Christmas preparations on 24 December when he heard a mob howling anti-Christian slogans outside his house. "When I came out, I saw our people running away into the jungle. They urged me, 'run', and I joined them," said Pastor Digal who said his Assembly of God church was destroyed by a 600-strong mob. He said the mob destroyed all three churches in Pobingia, his, a Baptist and a Roman Catholic place of worship - writes Anto Akkara.

In the Orissa state capital of Bhubaneswar on 10 January 2008 almost 10,000 people protested against the Christmas attacks on Christians. Rally speakers called on the Orissa state government to stop making allegations purporting that Christians are linked to an outlawed Maoist rebel movement. They also demanded that Christian churches and groups be allowed to provide direct relief to victims.

"Some people have characterised the violence as a Hindu-Christian clash. This is wrong. Dalit Christians were clearly the targets and innocent victims. The state government has also made baseless accusations that some Christian NGOs are aligned with Naxalites [the Maoists]," said Udit Raj, a speaker at the rally. Naxalites are Maoist rebels who often attack government installations throughout central India. Most are disenfranchised Dalits or Tribals.

Christians leaders also said the authorities were preventing their relief bodies from distributing aid in the area affected by the violence.

"Orissa's government should allow direct relief projects by churches and Christian NGOs. Currently, we are being told we can only distribute blankets, food and other supplies through the District Collectors," said Joseph D'souza, president of the All India Christian Council at the protest rally at which Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists also spoke in support of the Christians.

Back near the jungle area, Pastor Digal said: "This is the first time I could not conduct a Christmas service." After the attack he stayed in the jungle for four days until the violence subsided. Returning to his church he found the gates had been uprooted, tall trees in front of the church cut down, a 6 metres high concrete cross on top of the church had been toppled and everything in the church, the pastor's residence and a student hostel reduced to ashes.

Pastor Gurubandhu Sanseth who heads the Baptist congregation at Balliguda, 40 kilometres further into the jungle suffered a similar fate. As church members started coming in for the Christmas service on 24 December, mobs gathered outside the church in the centre of Balliguda town.

"First they asked Christians to switch off the lights and go home," said the pastor. However, the Christians switched off the lights and shut the doors but remained inside. Soon a mob of more than 300 attacked and broke the doors.

Pastor Sanseth said the mob was angered by the defiance of the Christians and some thugs "molested the young girls and chased every one out". The pastor said, "Since I knew I was their target, I fled." He said that as his panicked congregants scurried for safety, the attackers gathered everything inside the church, including musical instruments, and set them on fire.

Besides the Baptist church, three Catholic institutions were targeted at Balliguda, St Paul's Church, St Paul's Seminary as well as the Mount Carmel training centre and hostel. They were all reduced to ashes during a five hour rampage.

"I'm really scared of living here after this nightmare," said Sister Christa, principal of the computer training centre attached to the Mount Carmel convent. "See the damage they have done," she said, pointing to a pile of ash that had been computers and other training material.

The nuns said they had to flee for their lives when some of the assailants tried to molest them.

The Christians who live at Barakhama, 15 kilometres from Balliguda, did not run away when the mob came to destroy their place of worship belonging to the Church of North India. Instead they ended up fighting pitched battles with the assailants, one of whom died in the clash with the Christians.

This resistance drew more even more extremists to Barakhama, said a local Baptist, who requested anonymity.

Two Christians died in the violence, and 300 Christian houses were torched. The Church of North India church and nearby houses of Christians were razed to the ground. Residents quoted mob leaders as saying, "We don't want to see any Christians in Kandhamal. Next time, you will be our targets."

Bishop Bijay Kumar Nayak, who heads the Church of North India's Phulbani diocese, which covers the Kandhamal district, described the attacks as the culmination of a series of anti-Christian rallies organized by Hindu extremist groups, which threatened to remove Christians from the area.

The 100,000 strong Christian community account for one fifth of the population of Kandhamal district, with the Catholic Church being the largest denomination, making up half of the Christians there. More than 70 churches were destroyed or damaged in the violence.

[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.]

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