Beleaguered minority has much to lose, gain in polls.

NEW DELHI, May 1 (Compass Direct News) – With elections underway in India, its 2.3 percent Christian minority – which faced a deadly spate of attacks in the eastern state of Orissa last year – is praying for a secular party to come to power.

Along with the Muslim community, Christians fear that if the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies form the next government or an ideologically loose coalition comes to the helm, their already compromised welfare may further deteriorate.

Dr. John Dayal, secretary general of the All India Christian Council, said that the end of the Congress Party’s monopoly on power in the 1990s led to the rise of several major individual groups, including the BJP, political wing of the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) conglomerate.

“The rise of regional and linguistic or caste-based parties spells a danger for pan-national minorities, as parties with a narrow and localized outlook will have neither the strength nor the political need to come to their defense,” Dayal told Compass. “What is at stake now, as never before, is the stability and consistency of India’s constitutional institutions in their response to critical situations, their zeal to correct wrongs and their commitment to the welfare of the weakest and the lowest.”

Religious minorities, Dayal said, were hoping for a strong showing by a secular party, “possibly the Congress [Party],” supported by regional groups of a secular character.

“Personally, I would even welcome a Third Front [a grouping of anti-Congress Party and anti-BJP parties led by the Communist Party of India-Marxist] government supported by the Congress Party,” he added. “Certainly, a BJP-led government is the least desirable, as we fear major erosion and even regression in issues of freedom of faith, Dalit liberation and affirmative action for the poor.”

With the BJP in power, directly or as part of the ruling alliance, in 10 states – Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Punjab in the north; Chhattisgarh and Bihar in the east; Gujarat in the west; Nagaland and Meghalaya in the northeast; and Karnataka in the south – he said Christians believe it is important that a strong, secular government comes into power at the federal level.

The federal government can issue warnings and ultimately dismiss state legislatures and state executives if they fail to protect the lives of their people or major unrest erupts. The federal government can also make laws applicable across the nation.

The BJP-ruled states have become “absolutely inhospitable” and “hostile” to Christians thanks to the “inaction of the federal government,” said Sajan K. George, national president of the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).


Orissa, Andhra Pradesh

The eyes of Christians are also on state assembly elections in Orissa state.

Orissa is ruled by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which on March 7 broke its 11-year-old alliance with the BJP over the latter’s involvement in Kandhamal district violence. Elections in Orissa, held on April 16 and 23, are particularly important given that the results will either embolden Hindu nationalists to launch more attacks to polarize voters along religious lines or compel them to abstain from violence.

In December 2007, a series of brutal attacks began in Kandhamal. The violence that lasted for around 10 days killed at least four Christians and burned 730 houses and 95 churches under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council).

Violence re-erupted in the district following the killing of Saraswati on August 23, 2008. A Maoist group took responsibility for the murder, but BJP supporters claimed that Christians were behind the assassination.

The BJP has made the killing of Saraswati its main election plank. The party’s two candidates from Kandhamal – Manoj Pradhan for the G. Udaygiri assembly seat and Ashok Sahu for the Kandhamal parliamentary constituency – contested the elections from jail. Pradhan, a primary suspect in the August-September 2008 violence, has been in jail for the last few months. Sahu, a former senior police official, was arrested on April 14 for delivering a hate speech against Christians in the run-up to elections. He was released on bail on April 17.

In its election campaign, the BJD promised to provide protection to the Christian community in Kandhamal and elsewhere in the state, putting the blame of the Kandhamal violence entirely on the BJP.

“It was important to break up with the BJP because I don’t consider them healthy any longer for my state after Kandhamal – which I think is very apparent to everyone,” Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told CNN-IBN on April 19. “Before Kandhamal, we were lucky in the early years of the state government not to have a serious communal problem at all. But Kandhamal was very tragic and serious.”

According to the CNN-IBN private news channel, the Congress Party could benefit from the divorce of the BJD and the BJP. Nevertheless, the BJD is expected to form the next state government in Orissa.

The Congress Party, on the other hand, blamed both the BJD and the BJP for last year’s violence.

Elections in Kandhamal took place despite the fact that over 3,000 Christians were still in relief camps and hundreds of others had fled to others parts of the state fearing more tensions. Father Ajay Kumar Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar reached Kandhamal from the neighboring Gajapati district early on April 16, election day.

“Along the way, we came across numerous felled trees blocking the road in at least six places,” Fr. Singh told Compass. “The roads were deserted, and my colleagues and I were scared. But we somehow managed to reach Kandhamal.”

He added that in Dharampur in Raikia Block and in Kattingia near Tiangia in G. Udaygiri Block – where eight Christians were killed during last year’s violence – Christians were threatened if they did not vote for the BJP.

In Nilungia village, seven kilometers (four miles) from G. Udaygiri, where a Christian was killed, at least 40 Christians did not cast their votes out of fear of a backlash, Fr. Singh said.

“They feared tensions if they returned to their village and stayed out of the district,” he said.

The Catholic Church in Orissa had urged the Election Commission of India to postpone elections in Kandhamal, but polls were held as scheduled.

According to the district administration, the poll turnout on April 16 in Kandhamal was around 55 percent.

The violence following Saraswati’s murder lasted for over a month, killing more than 127 people and destroying 315 villages, 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions, besides rendering more than 50,000 homeless.

The incidence of Christian persecution is high in Andhra Pradesh, too. Analysts anticipate a neck-to-neck competition between the ruling Congress Party and the regional Telugu Desam Party (TDP), which recently allied with Left parties in the Third Front. The BJP is also in the fray but doesn’t appear strong enough to stake claim to power in the state.


Obscure Prognosis

With election results not due until May 16, the outlook at this point is murky.

“About all that can be said with certainty in the resulting alphabet soup of political parties is that the BJP won’t be aligning with Congress, or with the Left. Beyond that it’s a numbers game,” The Times of India noted in an editorial today. “Most observers agree that alignments determining who will form the next government will be decided only after the elections.”

The national daily added, “As India’s long, hot election summer grinds on, with the third phase held yesterday and the fifth and final phase not scheduled before the 13th of this month, it’s regrettable that no overarching themes have emerged even at this late stage, which can define the election.”

With 714 million eligible voters of the more than 1 billion people in the country, the five-phase elections for the 15th Lok Sabha (Lower House of Parliament) and for the state assemblies of Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and the north-eastern state of Sikkim began on April 16.

The three main parties are the left-of-center Congress Party (officially known as the Indian National Congress), which leads the governing United Progressive Alliance (UPA); the Hindu nationalist BJP, a leading party of the opposition National Democratic Alliance (NDA); and the Third Front.

A party and its allies need 272 members to rule in the 545-member Lok Sabha.


Expediency over Ideology

The regional and caste parties involved include the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), headed by Dalit (formerly “untouchable”) woman Mayawati, chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state in the north; and the Samajwadi Party (SP), also a powerful party in that state.

Other significant parties are the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) party in the eastern state of Bihar; the BJD in Orissa; the Trinamool Congress party in the eastern state of West Bengal; the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Shiv Sena party in the western state of Maharashtra; the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party in the southern state of Tamil Nadu; the TDP and Telangana Rashtriya Samiti (TRS) party in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, and the Janata Dal-Secular (JD-S) party in the southern state of Karnataka.

The Congress Party is hoping that it will be supported by the SP, the RJD, the Trinamool Congress party, the NCP, the DMK, and the TRS in case it emerges as the single-largest party post-elections. The JD-U, the Shiv Sena and the AIADMK, on the other hand, are likely to extend their support to the BJP-led NDA. The BSP, the BJD, the TDP, and the JD-S are expected to join the Third Front.

Most of these smaller parties, however, are keeping their options open and will formally declare their allegiances only after the results are announced on May 16.


Decade of Persecution

The concern of Indian Christians can be understood against the backdrop of the decade since 1998, when the BJP, under the aegis of the NDA, came into power at the federal level, marking the beginning of systematic persecution of Christians.

In January 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two young sons were burned alive in Orissa’s Keonjhar district. From 2000 to 2004, around 200 anti-Christian attacks were reported each year from various parts of the nations. In March 2004, India’s second massive spate of anti-Christian attacks took place in the Jhabua district of the central state of Madhya Pradesh.

The incidence of persecution remained high despite the change of the federal government in mid-2004 – after the Congress Party-led UPA defeated the BJP-led NDA.

At least 165 anti-Christian attacks were reported in 2005, and over 130 in 2006. Including the Orissa attacks, the total number of violent anti-Christian incidents rose to over 1,000 in 2007. And 2008 turned out to be the worst year for the Christians as violence returned in Kandhamal.

“The results of the elections on May 16 will show whether the ideology of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the father of the nation who promoted communal harmony, will prevail in India, or that of his killer Nathuram Godse, allegedly a member of the RSS,” said George of the GCIC.

Report from Compass Direct News


The controversial Anti-Conversion Bill in Sri Lanka has suffered a great setback with the recent suspension of the Bill by the Parliament as a result of intense opposition from the Christian population, reports Success Kanayo Uchime, special to ASSIST News Service.

In a report from the UK-based Release International (RI), a parliamentary committee comprised of Christian parliamentarians and leaders of political parties examined the Bill and agreed that it could have serious consequences on religious activities, spark inter-religious conflict and possibly violate the country’s constitution.

It stated that the Minister of Religious Affairs Pandu Bandaranayake, who confirmed that Christians have called for more clarity on some words in the Bill said that despite the opposition from the Buddhist-led party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Bill will be re-examined by the Ministry’s religious consultative committee.

RI report noted that a local media said that part of the Bill rejects the offer of a gift, cash or any other incentive to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another and is punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (about £6,800).

“Christians fear that the wording is open to abuse, and may severely restrict Christian activities in Sri Lanka,” the report said.

In another report by the BBC, it said that it has gathered that the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka has reported that the conflict in Sri Lanka has killed hundreds of children and left many more injured.

It noted that thousands of children are at risk because of a critical lack of food, water and medicines and that the intense fighting is going on between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

“The Tigers have been driven from most of the territory they held by the army. They are now cornered in a small patch of jungle and coastal area in Mullaitivu district,” UNICEF report said.

In his reaction, the UNICEF Executive Director, Ann Veneman, said the children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition.

“Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that life-saving supplies can be provided, and civilians must be allowed to move to safe areas where essential humanitarian support is more readily available,” Veneman further said.

Sri Lanka is said to have a multi ethnic and multi religious population, while Buddhism constitutes the religious faith of about 70% of the population of the island, most of whom follow the Theravada school of Buddhism.

Further to that Sri Lanka also has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any predominately Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 2nd century BCE.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Uganda’s army is accusing rebels of the Lord’s Resistance Army of hacking to death 45 civilians in a Catholic church in the Democratic Republic of Congo, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

A story on the BBC website quotes Ugandan Army Capt Chris Magezi who said the scene was “horrendous… dead bodies of mostly women and children cut in pieces.” The attack happened on December 26.

A rebel spokesman has denied responsibility for the killings, which follow a collapse in the peace process, the BBC said.

It also reports the UN saying that at least 189 people were killed in several attacks last week. Some reports say more than 100 people were killed in the church alone.

The BBC said the armies of Uganda, South Sudan and DR Congo carried out a joint offensive against the rebels in mid-December after LRA leader Joseph Kony again refused to sign a peace deal.

The BBC reported the LRA leader, who has lived in a jungle hideout in north-eastern DR Congo for the last few years, is wanted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity.

It also says Uganda’s government had been involved in lengthy peace negotiations with the LRA, hosted by the South Sudanese government. But LRA leader Kony has demanded that arrest warrants for him and his associates be dropped before any agreement can be struck.

Meanwhile, the UN peacekeeping mission in DR Congo says one of its troops accidently shot and killed a Ugandan soldier in the nearby town of Dungu.

The BBC said that aid officials requesting anonymity near Doruma, which is about 40km from the border with South Sudan, confirmed to Uganda’s Daily Monitor newspaper and to the AFP (Agence France Presse) news agency that the massacre had taken place.

“Bodies of the women and children, with deep cuts are littered inside and outside the church,” an aid official told The Monitor.

Witness Abel Longi told The Associated Press (AP) news agency that he recognized the LRA rebels by their dreadlocked hair, their Acholi language and the number of young boys among them.

“I hid in bush near the church and heard people wailing as they were being cut with machetes,” he said.

However, LRA spokesman David Nekorach Matsanga has denied that the rebels are behind the killings, the BBC reported.

“Reports about the LRA killing innocent civilians is another propaganda campaign by the Uganda army,” he said.

“I have it on good authority from the field commanders that the LRA is not in those areas where the killings are reported to have taken place.” He said the massacre may have been carried out by Ugandan soldiers.

“They want to justify their stay in DRC [Congo] and loot minerals from there like they did before,” he told the AP.

The BBC reports that Capt Magezi said that on Saturday the army had killed 13 of the rebels behind the alleged attack and were pursuing the rest of the group.

The UN’s humanitarian agency Ocha says 40 people were killed in attacks in DR Congo’s Faradje district, 89 around Doruma and 60 in the Gurba area, according to the BBC report.

The BBC story also says that many thousands of Congolese villagers fled their homes after LRA attacks near Dungu in October.

It explains that countries from Uganda to the Central African Republic have suffered 20 years of terror inflicted by the LRA. Tens of thousands of children have been abducted to be fighters and sex slaves.

Uganda’s government said the joint offensive had destroyed some 70 percent of the LRA camps in DR Congo.

The BBC’s Africa analyst, Martin Plaut, says that LRA leader Kony’s force is relatively small, about 650 strong. However, the difficulty is that when it is hit, it scatters and then regroups.

Report from the Christian Telegraph