‘Convert or die’ threats prevent Christian families from returning to home villages.
NEW DELHI, February 18 (Compass Direct News) – In the wake of anti-Christian violence in Orissa state last year, hard-line Hindus in Kandhamal district have forced nearly half of 40 Christian families in one village to convert under threat of death, area Christians said.
Bareka village resident Goliath Digal, 58, told Compass that the Hindu hardliners have taken 18 Roman Catholic families to a Hindu temple and performed Hindu rituals on them, forcing them to sign statements that they had converted of their own will.
“During the riots, all our belongings had been taken away and we were left with nothing,” Digal said. “Now they are threatening to murder us if we do not become Hindus.”
Of the 22 other families in Bareka, 16 have returned to the village from relief camps but are living in fear, Digal said, and the rest have fled to Berampur, Jharsuguda and to nearby villages with no plans to return. He added that he and others with farmland near the village have not been able to cultivate crops out of fear and opposition.
Fear of Return
In G. Udayagiri refugee camp, 55-year-old Vipin Nayak of Tiangia Budaripura village said that all 400 Christian families from the hamlet have remained in the camp except for five families who were allowed to return after being forced to become Hindus.
“We cannot enter the village until we become Hindus – if we do return, we risk our lives,” said Nayak, whose brother, Vikram Nayak, was killed in the anti-Christian violence that lasted for more than two months.
The Hindu hardliners have ordered the Christians to enter the village carrying Hindu scripture, the Bhagwat Geeta, in their hands if they want to return to the village, he said. Many Christians have tried to sneak into the village and were kidnapped and had their heads tonsured, Nayak said.
In Tikabali relief camp, 20-year-old Geetanjali Digal told Compass that Hindu extremists are telling villagers, “Once again we will attack, and riots will take place. We burned your houses, this time we will kill you all. Nobody will be left alive.”
Another source told Compass that one of the most dangerous hamlets is Badimunda. “Christians cannot step into the village at all,” said the source.
Prabhasini Nayak, a 20-year-old Christian resident of Kakamaha village, Panganaju, who remains in G. Udayagiri relief camp, said Hindus have threatened to impose monetary punishment on her Hindu uncle and his family if they make contact with her and Christian members of her family.
“The fundamentalists have threatened my uncle’s family to have no ties with us,” she said. “If they are found doing so, they will have to pay a fine of 5,000 rupees [US$100] to the fundamentalists.”
Peace Committees Fail
The district collector of Kandhamal, Dr. Krishna Kumar, said his office has received 68 to 70 complaints of forcible conversion of Christians to Hinduism, “and in all such cases police complaints have been registered and action is being taken.”
Christian leaders from Kandhamal said the government has set up meetings of “Peace Committees” to aid refugee camp dwellers to return to their home villages, but in many places the presiding officials failed to show up.
Kumar, however, told Compass that reconciliation has begun in various places. “Peace Committees have been very successful,” he said.
Area Christian leaders maintained that the Peace Committees will help little as there is almost no willingness by hard-line Hindus to tolerate Christian presence.
“‘Only Hindus and no Christians’ is the new slogan of Hindu fundamentalists in the area,” said one pastor on condition of anonymity. “Christians have to become Hindus or leave.”
Last month, India’s Supreme Court ordered the Orissa state government, led by an alliance that includes the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to ensure protection for the state’s Christian minority.
The violence last year resulted from Hindu extremist organizations blaming Christians for the murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23. Police, however, have charged Maoist extremists for the killings. A Communist Party fact-finding team estimated at least 500 people were murdered. More than 50,000 people were left homeless as some 5,000 houses were burned or destroyed, and 252 churches were destroyed.
Dr. Kumar said that smaller, transitional relief camps have been established in various blocks of the district, closer to villages, so that in time residents might be emboldened to venture freely back to their homes.
Asserting that only 1,500 people are left in refugee camps, Dr. Kumar said that 75 percent of those who fled have returned to their villages.
But Christian leaders from the district said that people who have left relief camps have not returned to their villages but migrated to safer places, especially the larger cities of Berhampur, Cuttack and Bhubaneshwar. They estimated that most are working as day-laborers and are not earning enough to survive.
Geetanjali Digal of the Tikabali relief camp told Compass that the camp still provides a key source of food.
“They have burnt our house,” Digal said. “All that we had is burnt. We have put a small tent in the place of our house that was burnt, but for food we go to the camp. My father is unable to get any work.”
Prabhasini Nayak of G. Udayagiri refugee camp said many people in the camps are eagerly awaiting government compensation to rebuild their homes so that they can start life anew.
“We are one of them,” she said.
Report from Compass Direct News