Anabaptists in India say they have been horrified that Christians have had to the jungle with nothing but the clothes on their backs, fearing for their lives because of communal violence in a country once known for religious tolerance.
"They cannot go home. The threats are still there; their homes are not. They have been burned to the ground. So have their churches, schools, orphanages, hostels, vehicles and entire villages", says a Brethren in Christ statement issued this week.
Brutal violence against Christians in Orissa erupted on 24 August 24 2008, in the Kandhamal district in southern India. It lasted for 12 days. The fury was set off by the fatal shooting of Laxmananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a militant group, and four of his followers.
Saraswati had been accused of targetting Christians for a long time. Although the Indian government has said that Maoists (Anti-Communal Forces) are suspected of his killing, Christians are being blamed by the VHP, and all Christians and some NGOs (non-government organizations) are targets.
Following an early-September meeting of the executive committee of the International Brethren in Christ Association (IBICA) held in Toronto, Ontario (Canada), the regional administrator for South Asia spoke in Kitchener. Of the 300 congregations across South Asia that he oversees, 180 of them are in India.
About 100 congregations are part of the Brethren in Christ Church Orissa, a Mennonite World Conference member church (conference), and 30 of them are in the hard-hit Kandhamal district. He brought news on the current situation in Orissa.
“There have been threats, beatings, and persecution for the last 20 years, but the [current] situation is very tense. People have been brutally murdered, hacked to death, women have been gang raped, and more than 100 churches in all six districts have been burned. Brethren in Christ members have been attacked but not killed,” he reports.
In 2001, a Brethren in Christ pastor was martyred, the first such incident, and an Australian missionary along with his two sons were burned to death. Then, in December 2007, violence erupted again. Neither of these episodes, however, was as widespread as this summer’s outbreak, which has been the worst that Christians of all denominations in Orissa have ever experienced. Estimates put the current death toll at more than 60 people.
In August 2008, a crowd of up to 4,000 Hindu militants attacked the Brethren in Christ Girls Hostel at Nuagoan, one of nine such facilities funded through the Scholarship Program for International Children’s Education (SPICE). The mob set the hostel and church ablaze, destroyed its water tank, and demolished the campus. Ten policemen who were on guard at the hostel fled when they saw the approaching crowd. Staff, girls, and local believers, some of whom were beaten, managed to flee. The Cuttack-based offices of the Brethren in Christ Church in India were also a target, and several pastors and church planters lost all their belongings when their homes were looted and burned.
“People, including pastors, who are still hiding in the forest have lost everything. They have no clothes, no food and are at risk of snake bites and malaria. They have no medication. It is not yet safe to help them,” says the church leader. Anyone offering assistance would be at risk, he notes.
And is the leader himself at risk? “Of course,” he answers. “All church leaders are targets.” But he will return to Cuttack, where his office is still closed. He cannot run away; he must serve, he declares. Several times over the past 25 years this leader has been threatened, sometimes by a mob of hundreds of people. Once, his house was set afire but not destroyed, thanks to an alert neighbour. But always, he claims, “the Lord protected me.”
He believes that the current situation is politically motivated. An election is scheduled for next year, and the government is “buying votes,” he says, by offering rewards to people who leave the Christian faith and return to Hinduism. The government is providing some food for people affected by the August violence, but only for non-Christians.
In the immediate future, IBICA and MWC officials will send a letter to government officials and the BIC Church leaders in India will send a delegation to the state government asking it to put pressure on the local government to protect its citizens and to restore peace and harmony.
The church official cited four actions which are currently underway or have been planned: calling the global Church to pray for Christians in Orissa; meeting with 15 to 20 church leaders from the immediate area in late September to plan a response to the violence and its victims; seeking financial support to rebuild homes, churches, and institutions; and meeting later with up to 200 church leaders in the broader area to hear from them how to help their people who have been victimized.
Acknowledgments to Mennonite World Conference news.