Christians still fear attacks in Indian state of Orissa

By Ecumenical News International
January 19, 2008

In the Indian State of Orissa's Kandhamal district, residents say it is hard not to be afraid - writes Anto Akkara. The ash heaps and metal frames are all that remain of the contents of the two-storied office of World Vision, a Christian relief and development organization.

It was emptied by a frenzied group of local business people and others said to be Hindu extremists who broke into the premises on Christmas day. Victims told Ecumenical News International they are being targeted because they are Christians.

"They wanted to set the building on fire. But, when the owner told the mob that he was a Hindu and pleaded them not to destroy his property, they obliged him," Michael Pradhan, director of the World Vision office at Daringabadi, told ENI.

So the attackers removed everything, including files, from the rented office, carried the contents across the road, before setting them fire to them so that the smoke would not blemish the recently painted building.

"This is not mere arson. There is a vicious mind-set and careful planning behind all these. It really worries us," said Pradhan who estimates the value of the World Vision vehicles and equipment that went up in flames at more than 1.2 million rupees (about US$30,000). The value of the documents cannot be measured in money terms, he stated.

At Pobingia village, 90 kilometres from Daringabadi, Pentecostal Pastor Lothra Digal rues that he has no clue as to the whereabouts of his 17-year old son who has been missing since a 24 December attack on the churches in the neighbourhood.

As about 500 armed people converged on the village, Pastor Digal fled to the jungle along with others. He returned to the village five days later after the violence stopped.

"I thought he would be safe and would return. But, nobody has seen my son yet," said Pastor Digal wiping tears from his eyes. Asked whether he had filed a missing person complaint with the police, Digal paused and said, "No. I will not do it. They [extremists] have threatened to kill me if I dared to register a complaint."

Five Christians have been confirmed dead after the violent attacks, which Christians say were instigated by Hindu extremists in the Kandhamal district of Orissa.

Church officials said, however, the death-toll among Christians could be much higher as many are missing after they fled because of the attacks on villages scattered across the jungle region.

More than 70 churches and 12 major Christian centres were destroyed or damaged in the wave of violence.

About 2500 Christians are temporarily housed at a refugee camp at Barakhama where they shelter in a dilapidated school building after many were rendered homeless when their houses were set on fire.

"My house has not been destroyed but I cannot still think of going back and sleeping in it," said Thadias Digal, a member of the Baptist church. Digal recounted that extremists threatened to kill the Christians unless they give up their faith.

"We want the police to stay here until all of us can go back to our village together," said Digal. He said the homeless Christians were seeking assistance from the government to rebuild their torched houses.

"What happened here was thoroughly planned," pointed out Rama Nayak, coordinator of the diocesan board of social service of the Phulbani diocese of the Church of North India, pointing to giant trees lying on the roadside. He said these had been cut down with saws and placed on road bends to block the movement of the security forces while violence was carried out.

"I'm scared of living here. But seeing the condition of these people, I do not want to leave them," said Roman Catholic Sister Christa at the Mount Carmel convent in Balliguda.

The convent premises with hostel facilities for 120 poor girls, an advanced computer training centre for 50 students and a free medical dispensary had been virtually reduced to ashes by the attackers who tried to molest nuns, said some of those who had fled.

"There is a tragedy waiting to happen," Christian investigators said in a document they prepared after visiting the area. They described the attacks as orchestrated anti-Christian violence.

John Dayal, the secretary general of the All India Christian Council, who led the investigation team told ENI, "Until the vicious propaganda against Christians is stopped, Christians will remain vulnerable in Kandhamal."

The investigation document cites Swami Loknananda Saraswati, who the Christians say spearheads the anti-Christian campaign in the Kandhamal jungles. It quotes him as saying, "Whosoever converts to Christianity becomes an enemy. Christians will not be tolerated."

Christians in Kandhamal accounts for one fifth of the district's 500 000 people.

[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.]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.