According to an Indian church worker, the violence against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa last year was not a one-off event but the consequence of a fragmented society. However, the results of the recent general elections are seen as distinctly heartening by those who want peace .
The wave of violence which started after the killing of a prominent radical Hindu leader in August 2008 - a murder claimed by Maoist rebels but blamed on Christians by Hindu militants - reflects how Indian society is being fragmented along communal lines, said John Suresh Kumar, of the Church of North India Synodical Board of Social Services, speaking at the headquarters of the World Council of Churches (WCC) in Geneva.
Kumar explained that Hindu extremists had succeeded in pitching "tribal communities in Kandhamal, Orissa, who continue to live in abject poverty" against Dalit Christians. These are slightly better off in terms of their economic status than tribal people in this area.
Dalits make up the majority of Christians in most parts of India. In the Indian caste system, Dalits have been treated as "untouchable" due to Brahmanic ritual traditions that considered them "unclean".
Kumar, who had recently visited the affected Kandhamal district, said that nine months after the communal violence began, thousands of people who had to flee from their homes were still living in camps, lacking access to water and sanitation.
While providing relief to the displaced is the immediate need, churches should not stop there, Kumar said, since aid and rehabilitation can only be sustainable if security is re-established.
According to Kumar, the Orissa state government was indirectly complicit in the violence "or at least it has failed to punish the rioters". He added:
"Therefore it is important that churches speak out with a united voice at the national and international level".
He stressed the importance of outreach to tribal communities, making sure that it is not only the Christian victims of violence who benefit from church aid efforts such as housing projects, so that divisions are not worsened. "Development action should be cutting across communal and faith boundaries."
Kumar addressed staff from the WCC and other Geneva-based ecumenical organizations just as India completed its federal elections. He pointed out that the outcome of India's general election will be crucial in securing peace and security in Orissa. Citizens in Orissa also elected a new state administration. It replaces a coalition that included a rightwing Hindu fundamentalist party.
The clear victory of the outgoing secular federal government coalition over the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has delighted Christian leaders in India.
The World Council of Churches has repeatedly condemned the violence against Christians in Orissa, not least at a meeting between WCC general secretary the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia and Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in October 2008.