Churches in India are today closing about 30,000 of their educational institutions across the country to protest against continuing attacks by mobs of Hindu militants in the country's eastern state of Orissa and which Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has told bishops, is a "national shame".
Anto Akkara writes : "We cannot remain spectators to what is happening in Orissa," said Bishop Dinesh Kumar Sahu, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, a grouping of 30 Orthodox and Protestant churches. He told Ecumenical News International on 28 August that the council had sent its appeal for the closure of Christian schools and colleges across the country to member churches.
Orissa has witnessed widespread violence against Christian targets since 25 August after Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the most senior leader of Hindu nationalist groups in Orissa, was shot dead allegedly by Maoists on the night of 23 August at his home in Orissa's Kandhamal district.
The death toll in the violence that followed Saraswati's killing is believed to have exceeded 18, with church leaders saying that most of those who died were Christians. Churches and other Christian institutions continue to be targeted, especially in the Kandhamal district, where hardly any church institution has escaped attacks by arms groups of Hindus, who residents say are moving around with impunity.
Kandhamal district has a substantial group of Christians, who number about 100 000 from the district's total population of around half a million.
The Roman Catholic Bishops' Conference of India has released a list of 41 churches that have been damaged, and 17 villages where Christian houses have been burnt down besides dozens of other church institutions. The Seventh-day Adventist and Baptist churches have also reported numerous attacks on their followers and buildings.
The NCCI's appeal to member churches for the unprecedented closure of all Christian educational institutions followed calls by the Catholic Church, which announced first it would close all its educational institutions to condemn what it says is orchestrated violence against Christians.
Catholic bishops justified the step as a "mark of solidarity with our suffering brothers and sisters, and as a protest against the atrocities on the Christian community".
"Fearing for their life, many Christians, including women and children, religious men and women, have taken shelter in the nearby forests. They are deprived of food and other basic necessities of life, and if the situation is allowed to prolong then it can turn into a serious human disaster," the Catholic bishops said.
Police in Orissa say they have deployed more than 3000 officers, but Christians said the ransacking and attacks had continued.
"We cannot expect much from the state government," Church of North India Bishop Samson Das told ENI on 28 August from New Delhi, where he and other bishops from Orissa were seeking a meeting with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
Singh later told church leaders that the violence against Christians was a "national shame" and he promised to provide compensation to the families of those killed and also to provide for the rehabilitation of Christian refugees.
[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.]