Last December, Christians in India’s eastern Orissa state suffered some of the worst persecutions in the country’s history—a Christmas nightmare orchestrated by Hindu bigots who run wild in the jungles of the state’s Kandhamal district.
Hindu fundamentalists unleashed waves of violence and threats to force Christians into “gar vapasi,” which means the “coming home” of Christians to the Hindu faith.
The orgy of violence began on Christmas Eve at the jungle village of Bamunigam after Hindus destroyed traditional Christmas decorations put out by local Christians in the marketplace. In the clashes that followed, 31 homes owned by Christians were set on fire.
Catholics account for half of the estimated 100,000 Christians in Kandhamal district. Consequently, they bore the brunt of the attacks. Five churches, 48 village chapels, two seminaries, half a dozen hostels, and four convents were among those structures destroyed in the violence, which lasted four days. Father Prasanna Singh, vicar of St. Peter’s Church in Pobingia, witnessed the attacks. While helping his parishioners make decorations on Christmas Eve, he got an urgent call from the vicar of the parish in Phulbani (20 kilometers away). The vicar warned him about Hindu mobs on a rampage to attack churches.
As Father Singh thought about what to do next, policemen who were supposed to guard his church left their posts upon hearing sounds of the 600- strong Hindu mob shouting anti- Christian slogans.
The priest fled through the backyard, as the mob, armed with axes and crow bars among other weapons, went around smashing the church.
“See, this is not the result of an earthquake,” said Father Singh on January 5, pointing at the damage to the church.
During the attack Father Singh hid in the jungle, then managed to reach Phulbani and sought refuge with the parish priest there. A Hindu mob went, three times, to the rented house where the priests were staying.
“We were lucky the Hindu landlord stood firm and chased them away,” said Father Singh, who later reached Archbishop Cheenath’s house in Bhubaneswar, 220 kilometers from the Kandhamal jungles.
“All of us are still scared,” said Sadananda Digal, a layman who helped the parish priest flee into the jungle. Many of the 130 Catholic families of Pobingia are “still sleeping in the jungles in the night,” said Digal.
The mayhem had been planned weeks ahead of time. As Christian leaders point out, Hindu fundamentalists regularly hold marches across Kandhamal, warning Christians to give up their faith or suffer violence.
“We do not want to see any Christians in Kandhamal,” shouted the Hindu mob triumphantly after setting Christian houses on fire in December.
THE GOVERNMENT’S INDIFFERENCE
Sensing that trouble was brewing before Christmas, Christian groups had met with Kandhamal’s District Collector (the highest government official) and the District Superintendent of Police to ask for protection of Christian properties. But being sympathetic to the Hindu mobs, the government offered little help.
A five-hour-long arson attack in the heart of the town of Balliguda reduced to ashes St. Paul’s Church, as well as the adjacent minor seminary and sprawling Mount Carmel convent with its homeless shelter for 120 girls.
“We do not have even a glass here to drink water,” said Sister Sujata, superior of the Mount Carmel convent on the main road of Balliguda. A headless, burned statue of the Virgin Mary stands before those who now enter the convent premise.
As the heavily armed thugs smashed up the convent, the nuns had to hide under the staircase. “When they spotted us, they wanted to drag the younger ones into the room and molest them,” recounted Sister Sujata. “We prayed and held our hands together and resisted,” she said.
Somehow the assailants let them off and the nuns jumped over the walls in the backyard, fleeing to the jungle in pitch darkness—at the very moment they would have been attending Christmas Mass in the nearby parish church.
For Father Prabodh Kumar Pradhan, rector of St. Paul’s minor seminary behind the church, this Christmas nightmare will haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I was stunned to see everything burned down,” recounted Father Pradhan. Local Christians had told him: “Father, please run away. They are looking for priests to kill them. If anything happens to you, we will hit back.”
“I did not want to run away. But, I realized the situation was really serious and fled to the jungles. Initially, my feet would not move when I started running,” added the rector, who has now reopened the seminary at a pastoral center 15 kilometers away, one of the few major church centers to escape the fury of the Hindu mobs.
Father Pradhan noted that all of the mayhem happened “right under the nose of the fire brigade.”
There was a small team of determined police officers who wanted to prevent attacks at Pobingia, but when they called for reinforcements they were told the roads had been blocked. Even today, as one crisscrosses the jungles tracts of Kandhamal, giant trees can be seen on the roadside. These had been strategically cut down with saws to block the movement of security forces during the attacks. Though local Hindus were part of the mobs, many of thugs had been trucked in to carry out the attacks more efficiently.
“This is diabolic violence,” said Father Babu Joseph, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops Conference in India, after visiting the worst affected centers in Kandhamal. The intensity of violence and the scale of destruction showed that it was “systematically planned and clinically executed,” he said.
A team of Christians has investigated the attacks, producing a “White Paper” warning that an even bigger tragedy is “waiting to happen.” John Dayal, a prominent Christian activist who led the investigation team, said that “until the vicious propaganda against Christians is stopped, Christians will remain vulnerable in Kandhamal.”
“Whosoever converts to Christianity becomes an enemy. Christians will not be tolerated,” Swami Loknananda Saraswati, who spearheaded the anti- Christian campaign in the Kandhamal jungles, has said.
Dayal notes that the police have never “touched” Saraswati, and that he even moves around sometimes with a police escort.
“What Orissa has witnessed is the worst organized attack on Christians in independent India’s history,” Dayal told CWR after touring the trouble spots. “The orchestrated violence has driven terror and chill into the bones of Christians,” fumed Dayal, who has been documenting anti-Christian attacks ever since Hindu nationalists began their rise in Indian politics in the late 1990s.
Christian Peter Mallick said that Hindu fundamentalists are “using every excuse to harass and intimidate Christians.” He received a letter on January 21 from a Hindu fundamentalist group threatening to burn down his house. The reason given by the group was that Mallick, a former official of the telephone department, posed a threat to the local government’s telephone tower.
More than 500 Christian pastors and delegates of all denominations held a meeting to assess the crisis on January 23 at Raika, where four years ago a Catholic church was destroyed by Hindus.
As an educated and affluent Christian, he is “not scared,” says Mallick. “But what about the poor Christian families in the jungles? This is a question of survival for them.”
COULD IT GET WORSE?
“I thought the worst was over with arson here,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, vicar of St. Paul’s church in Balliguda. “But the situation is only getting worse. Two Christian houses were burned down in the villages here last week [mid-January].”
At the meetings Christians hold regularly in Balliguda, reports of Hindu groups visiting scattered Christians in the night and threatening them with death pour in, said the anguished priest. “This is really dreadful.”
Meanwhile, the autonomous National Commission for Minorities in India offered a scathing criticism of the anti- Christian violence in Orissa, which government officials there have tried to whitewash as just one more insignificant clash between Christians and Hindus.
In its report released on January 17, the Commission said the attack was “organized and pre-planned,” and accused the state government of ignoring the Christian appeals for protection before the violence started. The Commission also criticized the state’s token compensation offered to Christians for the church properties and hundreds of Christian houses that had been torched.
The charred metal remains of a van, motorbikes, bicycles, computers, and other office equipment that came from the office of a business called World Vision in Daringabadi was cited by the Commission as evidence for its conclusion.
These items from the two-storied office had been carted out by Hindu local businessmen so that burning them wouldn’t damage the building (which is owned by a Hindu).
Michael Pradhan, director of the World Vision office, said the Hindu mob carried out everything inside and put it across the road before setting it ablaze, lest the smoke scar the recently painted building owned by a Hindu.
“This is not mere arson. There is a vicious mind and careful planning behind all this. It really worries us,” said Pradhan, who estimates the value of the damaged World Vision vehicles and equipment at about 1.2 million rupees (approximately $30,000).
Weeks after the violence, Pentecostal pastor Lothra Digal still did not know the whereabouts of his 17-year-old son, who has been missing since the Christmas Eve attacks. When asked whether he has filed a missing complaint report with the police, Digal said: “No. I will not do it. They (Hindu fundamentalists) have threatened to kill me if I dared to register complaint.”
Few Christians expect the Orissa state administration to get tough with Hindu fundamentalists as the state government is headed up by a coalition government in which the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is a partner.
This is evident from the open letter a senior Christian leader wrote on January 15 to Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik, lambasting him for refusing to keep his promise to let church charities reach out to families languishing in refugee camps.
“We are extremely disappointed that despite your personal assurance during our visit, church organizations have been prevented from providing relief supplies to the victims of the violence,” said Abraham Mathai, vice chairman of Minorities Commission of Maharashtra state and president of Indian Christian Voice.
The letter further pointed out that at a Christian refugee camp in the Kandhamal jungle two infants died due to a lack of baby food and other provisions for mothers sheltered in dilapidated school buildings.
“I feel rather helpless,” said Archbishop Cheenath (80 percent of his flock of 64,000 Catholics live in Kandhamal jungles). Even a month after the violence, Archbishop Cheenath has not been able to meet his harassed people.
State officials, such as chief minister Patnaik, have repeatedly pleaded with him not to visit “volatile” Kandhamal. On January 20, they appeared to relent, telling the archbishop to contact the District Collector to make arrangements for his visit.
But so far the District Collector has responded by “requesting” that Archbishop Cheenath delay his visit, saying that he is worried about how Hindus will react. This speaks volumes about the security of Christians in Kandhamal.
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