‘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


Another inflammatory funeral procession planned for Sunday, in spite of ban.

BHUBANESWAR, September 5 (Compass Direct News) – Asserting that most area Hindus are tolerant and peaceable, victims of ongoing anti-Christian violence in the eastern state of Orissa blamed the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) and other extremist groups for the terror of the past two weeks.

“The mobs that attacked our parishes and institutions were largely composed of extremists from the VHP and its youth wing, Bajrang Dal,” said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of the Behrampore Catholic diocese.

At least four parishes, a presbytery and a youth hostel were destroyed in Munniguda town in Rayagada district under the Behrampore diocese in the spate of violence that began following the killing of a VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his associates in Kandhamal district on August 23. Christian leaders say more than 100 lives have been lost and thousands of houses, churches and institutions damaged or destroyed in the violence.

The state government attributed the assassination of the VHP leader and his associates to Maoists who have since claimed responsibility for the murders, but the Hindu extremist groups continue to blame Christians.

Asked if he condemned the violence on Christians, VHP Orissa State President Gauri Prasad Rath told Compass that he categorically did not.

“You should ask me to condemn the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his associates with AK-47s by Christians,” he said.

While the Global Council of Indian Christians says more than 100 people have been killed in the violence, the Kandhamal District Collector’s Office told Compass that the death toll is only 14 people. The office reports 22,685 people are in relief camps in Kandhamal. The same office has also reported that 2,400 buildings have been destroyed in the mayhem, though Christian leaders believe the total is much higher.


Hindus Protected Christians

Father Mathew Puthyadam, a Catholic priest in Phulbani town in Kandhamal district, told Compass that local Hindu families gave him shelter.

As mob of around 4,000 people was carrying the body of Saraswati in a procession outside his church on the night of August 24, he said, he first sought shelter with Christians.

“When the mob was destroying my parish [Christ the King Church], I went to the house of parish workers nearby and hid in a broken bathroom,” Fr. Puthyadam said. “The mob somehow came to know that the house belonged to Christians, and they launched an attack on it. They beat up the two boys who live there, but they managed to escape. Thankfully, they did not come to the bathroom.”

About an hour after the mob left, Fr. Puthyadam came out to the street to see if it was safe for him to leave.

“A Hindu lady told me some extremists were still roaming around,” he said. “She asked me to hide in her kitchen and gave me food to eat.”

Later, Fr. Puthyadam fled to a forest, and finally came to the Archbishop’s House in the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

“Many among the mob were goons and thieves who were seemingly led by extremist groups,” he recalled, saying he felt he had gotten a “second life” as he could have been killed.

Another priest who managed to reach Bhubaneswar after a seven-day journey from Onjamundi village in Kandhamal district praised local Hindu families for protecting him.

“On the evening of August 25, a mob of 300 people who were armed with pistols, chisels and sticks, started burning houses and churches,” said Father Laxmikant Pradhan, a Catholic priest. “We could see thick smoke rising from all around. But Hindu families in the village asked Fr. Prabodha Kumar, my associate, and I to hide in their homes.”

Ravindranath Pradhan, a 45-year-old former soldier of the Indian Army, told Compass that VHP supporters attacked Christian houses in his village of Gadragaon in the Rupagaon area of Kandhamal.

“We know the attackers – they are from the VHP,” he said. “We have named them in our police complaint.”

Pradhan and 113 others reached Bhubaneswar on August 28 after walking for four days from Gadragaon. The homeless Christians were given shelter in a YMCA center in the capital city.


Creating a Rift

Some Orissa locals believe the extremists meant to create a rift between Christian missionaries and lower-caste tribal peoples known as “Other Backward Classes” (OBCs).

Prabhu Kalyan Mahapatra, a local Hindu and freelance journalist, told Compass that he did not think the violence was the result of what media are portraying as a Hindu-Christian “clash.”

In Kandhamal, there are OBCs who are lower castes but not “outcasts,” Mahapatra said, noting that the OBCs were mainly traders, while Dalits and tribal peoples were laborers and the poorest of the poor. He said the OBCs exploited Dalit and tribal people.

“However, Christian missionaries provided education to Dalits and tribals, which was not liked by the OBCs for obvious reasons,” he said, pointing out that several people from Dalit and tribal backgrounds had risen to become bureaucrats and members of parliament because of education provided by Christian institutions. “And the VHP took advantage of the situation and created a rift between OBCs and Christian missionaries.”

Mahapatra said that locals’ tolerance for Christian converts made Hindu-Christian conflict an unlikely reason for the violence. A Christian convert, Madhusudan Das, was recognized by the people of all local communities as the “father of modern Orissa,” he said.

Das, a lawyer, social reformer and patriot, worked for the political, social and economical uplift of people of eastern India, especially Orissa, and contributed numerous articles and poems both in Oriya and English.

“If the people of these communities respect a convert [Das], how can you say the Hindus of Orissa are not tolerant?” he asked.

Mahapatra explained how the VHP extended Saraswati’s funeral procession to incite violence.

“The funeral was taken from Saraswati’s ashram [religious center] in Jalespeta to his other ashram in Chakapada in Kandhamal, covering around 134 kilometers, when the distance between the two ashrams is merely 70 kilometers,” he said.

The attacks on Christians began during the funeral procession, he added.


New Tensions Feared

The Orissa government yesterday put a ban on rally planned by the VHP to take the ashes of Saraswati in another public procession throughout Orissa villages beginning on Sunday (September 7), according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

The ban was announced by the state government in hearing of a petition filed by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa in the Supreme Court of India. The state government, however, fears fresh trouble on Sunday, as it is believed that the VHP may still go ahead with the processions.

“The state government has decided to rush additional force to the riot-affected areas in view of VHP’s proposed ‘kalas puja’ [worship of the remains of a deceased] of slain Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati,” reported The Indian Express newspaper today.

According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, mobs led by extremist groups are “roaming in Kandhamal and threatening the Christians to ‘reconvert’ or face death.”

Christians from various denominations will fast and pray for the Christians in Orissa on Sunday.

The VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, a partner of the ruling government led by the Biju Janata Dal party, continue to blame Christians for the killing of Saraswati and four others in spite of the Maoist claim of responsibility for the assassination.

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal during last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by VHP extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and many are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa’s population, or 897,861 of the total 3.7 million people.

Report from Compass Direct News


Orissa government leaks assessment pointing toward Maoists; protests nationwide

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – Sources in the government of Orissa said in an India media report today that they believe that Christians were not behind the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples on Saturday (August 23).

The death toll in “retributive” attacks against Christians today stood at 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

A private news channel, NDTV 24X7, reported unnamed government sources as saying that their assessment was that Christians had no role in the killing, and that the probe was leading to Maoist (extreme Marxist) culprits.

Inspector General of Police (Intelligence) Manmohan Praharaj had on Wednesday told The Indian Express newspaper that evidence available to police was “consistent with the Maoist stamp in the kind of operation they undertake.”

“The assailants had left a note written on the letterhead of Vamsadhara Zonal Committee, signed by one Azad, and it is consistent with the Maoist methods,” he added.

After the attack on Saraswati’s ashram (religious center) in Kandhamal district, the VHP and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), partner of the ruling coalition with the Biju Janata Dal party, claimed that Christians had killed Saraswati because he was fighting “forced” conversions. Saraswati was allegedly behind a spate of anti-Christian attacks in Kandhamal last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, and killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches.

With Hindu extremist leaders having urged followers to “Kill Christians and destroy their institutions,” mobs allegedly led by the VHP today carried on attacks on Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district for the sixth consecutive day, though there were reportedly fewer incidents than in the previous five days.

To express solidarity with the victims of the violence, Christians from various denominations and across the country registered their protests. Around 45,000 Christian schools and colleges throughout the country remained closed today to demand protection of Christians in Orissa.

“Survival is more important than education,” the Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), told Indo-Asian News Service (IANS), refering to the CBCI’s call for a nationwide closure of Christian schools.

A Hindu extremist group in Gwalior city in the northern state of Madhya Pradesh, however, pelted stones at some schools and churches.

“While all Christian schools and colleges in Madhya Pradesh remained closed on Friday in protest, a group of people pelted stones at Carmel Convent School, St. Theresa School and Church and St. Paul’s Church in Gwalior,” V.K. Suryavanshi, superintendent of police, told IANS. Madhya Pradesh is ruled by the BJP.


‘Ethnic Cleansing’

Raising cries against “ethnic cleansing” of Christians in Orissa, thousands of Christians today staged a rally in the national capital to protest violence that has claimed at least 30 lives, destroyed hundreds of houses and churches and forced thousands of Christians to flee to jungles.

Among other protests across the country, at the Orissa House in New Delhi Christians from almost 30 churches and numerous organizations gathered to protest the violence. Addressing the throng was Archbishop Raphael Cheenath from Orissa, Archbishop Vincent Concessao of Delhi, Dr. John Dayal of the All India Christian Council (AICC) and the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

Member of Parliament P.C. Thomas, retired high court judge Kulse Patil, attorneys from the Christian Legal Association, human rights activists Shabnam Hashmi and Teesta Setalvad, and Dalit leader Udit Raj were also part of the protest.

Christians submitted a memorandum to Orissa Gov. Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare after the rally.

“In deep anguish and pain, we, the Christian community of the Delhi and National Capital Region, submit this memorandum to you, and not to the Chief Minister of Orissa, because we believe that by not stopping the ethnic cleansing of Christians in Orissa in the last six days, he has abdicated his Constitutional duties to the Sangh Parivar [family of Hindu extremist groups] and thereby has forfeited his right to be in government,” it said.

The memorandum also demanded declaration of President’s Rule in Orissa under Article 356 of the Indian Constitution, saying the constitutional machinery of the state had failed.

“Nuns have been raped, pastors, priests, religious workers injured in their hundreds,” it reads. “Over forty churches have been destroyed, many for the second time, apart from once again hundreds upon hundreds of houses burnt in towns, villages and forest settlements. Christians have been chased and hunted like animals.”

The GCIC will stage a day-long sit-in protest in front of the Orissa state assembly in state capital Bhubaneswar tomorrow.

Organizations in the United States and United Kingdom also have condemned the violence, demanding action against the attackers. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the Dalit Freedom Network, the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations in North American, the Indian National Overseas Congress, and the Indian Muslim Council of the USA are among them.


‘National Shame’

A Christian delegation from across various denominations yesterday met with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who called the Orissa violence a “national shame.” Singh assured the church leaders of compensation of 300,000 rupees (US$7,500) to the families of those killed, reported The Hindu newspaper.

Singh also reportedly promised funds from the Prime Ministers’ Relief Fund for providing relief and rehabilitation to all those affected by the violence.

The federal government also seeks a probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the violence against Christians.

“We would have liked ideally that this matter be handed over to the CBI, because those responsible should get justice immediately as judicial probe takes longer time,” Science and Technology Minister Kapil Sibal (from the Congress Party) told the Press Trust of India news agency. Sibal, however, clarified that it was for the state government to recommend a probe by the federal investigating agency, as the federal government could not do this on its own.

The opposition Congress Party in the Orissa state assembly House moved a no-confidence motion against the ruling coalition late today. It posed little threat to the government, which had the required majority to defeat it in a voice vote.


Tensions, Mob Attacks Continue as Violence Ebbs

NEW DELHI, August 29 (Compass Direct News) – As a week of violence drew to a close following the killing of senior Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Laxmananada Saraswati, some angry Hindu mobs were still attacking Christians in spite of orders by the Orissa state administration to shoot agitators on sight.

The “shoot-at-sight” orders are in place in eight of the most sensitive areas as the number of deaths climbed to at least 36, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians. By nightfall in Orissa state, authorities had discovered the body of Abhimanyu Naik of Kandhamal district near Raikia village; they said he was the apparent victim of a mob attack.

The government maintains a figure of 19 dead, while Christian and human rights agencies calculate higher tolls. The Asian Centre for Human Rights asserts that more than 50 persons, mainly Christians, have been killed. Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, reported in a letter to United Progressive Alliance Chairperson Sonia Gandhi that 30 persons have been killed.

Orissa police have reportedly put about 165 people behind bars for the violence, but Vijay Simha, senior editor of independent weekly news magazine Tehelka, told Compass from Kandhamal district that there is no evidence against them.

“These arrests are based purely on suspicion,” he said. “There is terror all over. Those who are hiding in the forest and those in the homes – no one feels safe. The areas are totally deserted.”

Orissa officials report that in Kandhamal district alone 20 churches have been burned, 19 people killed, 10 people seriously injured, 28 vehicles burned and more than 500 houses burned down or destroyed. But lawyer Bibhu Dutta Das told Compass that the number of houses burned or destroyed in Kandhamal could be “a lot more than what was quoted in the government report – the number can be over 1,000.”

Sources said churches were attacked today in Tharnamal, Phatara, and Panbarani. Churches were burned throughout the district of Bolangir and the areas of Ganjam and Kalumunda in the past few days. In Bolangir, four churches were burned yesterday in Dhandhamal, Monihira, Phatkorra, and Bilaikani.

The assault on churches continued in Bolangir district. Sources said that in Tharnamal, Bolangir a mob of around 60 people attacked a church building where Christians were present inside. The attackers included at least four minors. The Christians were able to flee as the assailants destroyed the structure.

Additionally, one church was burned in Kalumunda, and one in Ganjam.


Appeals for Help

Deputy Inspector General of Police R.P. Koche told Compass that tensions remain while security is gradually increasing.

“Curfew is relaxed in Phulbani town, and the situation is quite under control,” he said. “Though tension prevails in Kandhamal, the situation is improving gradually in some areas. Security forces have been able to enter inaccessible areas by removing obstacles placed by miscreants.”

Koche said that a number of Special Forces were deployed in Kandhamal district, including the Central Reserve Police Force and the Rapid Action Force, while Orissa state armed police had deployed 24 platoons in the area.

Local sources in Baliguda said the curfew there was relaxed today, and markets were re-opened.

Christian and human rights agencies have appealed for the government to do more to bring the violence under control. After the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network filed a petition in Cuttack High Court, the Orissa High Court yesterday directed the state government to immediately deploy more forces to protect the rights and properties of the people.

Another petition was filed by the Utkal Christian Council. The High Court of Orissa heard the case today and issued show-cause notices to the state of Orissa and the Union of India to file replies.

“It has been directed that the state shall requisition required number of security forces, and the central government shall provide the same,” Attorney B.D. Das told Compass. “Further, it was directed that the state shall furnish the details of how much security forces it has applied for with the Central Government and how many has the Central government so far provided for the maintenance of law and order situation in the state.”

In addition, the National Human Rights Commission today asked the Orissa government to file a detailed report on violence in the state within two weeks.


Relief Camps

Suresh Mohapatra, a government administrator, told media that the state government had opened seven relief camps along the affected areas that could accommodate nearly 5,000 people.

“People are still coming to camps,” he said, adding that he expected the flow to end soon as “the riots have stopped.”

Local sources told Compass that more than 1,000 people are at a relief camp at G. Udaygiri, with the government providing makeshift shelter and basic foods.  

Report from Compass Direct News