Militant group threatens more attacks unless non-Hindus leave country within month. 

KATHMANDU, Nepal, June 2 (Compass Direct News) – Vikash and Deepa Patrick had been married for nearly four months before the young couple living in Patna in eastern India managed to go on their honeymoon here. The decision to come to Nepal for four days of fun and sight-seeing would be a choice the groom will rue the rest of his life.

Vikash Patrick’s 19-year-old bride died while praying at the Assumption Church in Kathmandu valley’s Lalitpur district, the largest Catholic church in Nepal, in an anti-Christian bombing on May 23, the day they were to return home. Claiming responsibility for the violence was the Nepal Defense Army (NDA), a group wishing to restore Hinduism as the official religion of Nepal.

Patrick and two of his cousins also were injured in the explosion that ripped through the church, where nearly 400 people had turned up for a morning service.

A dazed Sun Bahadur Tamang, a 51-year-old Nepali Christian who had also gone to the church that day with his wife and daughter, pieced together the incident while awaiting treatment in a private hospital.

“We were in the prayer hall when a woman who looked to be in her 30s came and sat down next to my wife,” Tamang told Compass. “Then she got up and asked us where the toilet was. We said it was near the entrance, and she left, leaving her blue handbag behind. A little later, there was a stunning bang, and I fell on my daughter. People screamed, there was a stampede, and I couldn’t find my wife. I also realized I had lost my hearing.”

Deepa Patrick and a 15-year-old schoolgirl, Celeste Joseph, died in the explosion while 14 others, mostly women and teenagers, were injured. Another woman, Celeste’s mother Buddha Laxmi Joseph, died of a hemorrhage yesterday.

In the church hall, police found remains of the handbag as well as a pressure cooker. From 1996 to 2006, when Nepal’s underground Maoist party fought a guerrilla war against the state to overthrow monarchy and transform the world’s only Hindu kingdom into a secular republic, pressure cookers became deadly weapons in guerrilla hands. Packed with batteries, a detonator, explosives and iron nails, pressure cookers became lethal home-made bombs.

Also found scattered in the hall and outside the church were hundreds of green leaflets by an organization that until two years ago no one knew existed. Signed in the name of Ram Prasad Mainali, a 38-year-old Hindu extremist from eastern Nepal, the leaflets claimed the attack to be the handiwork of the NDA.

“A day after the explosion, a man called me up, saying he was the vice-president of the NDA,” said Bishop Narayan Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church in Nepal. “Though he was polite and expressed regret for the death of innocent people, he said his organization wanted the restoration of Hinduism as the state religion.”

Soon after the phone call, the NDA sent a fresh statement to Nepal’s media organizations with a distinctly militant tone. In the statement, the NDA gave “Nepal’s 1 million Christians a month’s time to stop their activities and leave the country” or else it would plant a million bombs in churches across the country.

“There is fear in the Christian community,” said Chirendra Satyal, spokesman for the Assumption Church. “Now we have police guarding our church, and its gates are closed. People coming in are asked to open their bags for security checks. It’s unheard of in the house of God.”

Suspect Arrested

An unexpected development occurred today as last rites were performed at the church on Joseph, the mother of the 15-year-old girl who also died in the explosion.

“At around 3 a.m. Tuesday, we arrested the woman who planted the bomb in the church,” Deputy Inspector-General of Police Kuber Rana told Compass.

Rana, who was part of a three-member police team formed to investigate the attack, identified the woman as a 27-year-old Nepalese, Sita Shrestha nee Thapa. Thapa allegedly confessed to police that she was a member of an obscure group, Hindu Rashtra Bachao Samiti (The Society to Save the Hindu Nation), and had planted the bomb inspired by the NDA.

The NDA made a small splash in 2007, a year after Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah, who had tried to seize absolute power with the help of the army, was forced to step down after nationwide protests. The cornered king had to reinstate a parliament that had been dissolved several years ago, and the resurrected house promptly decided to end his pretensions as the incarnation of a Hindu god by declaring Nepal to be a secular country.

Soon after that, a man walked into the office of a Nepalese weekly in Kathmandu and claimed to have formed the NDA, a group of former army soldiers, policemen and victims of the Maoists. Its aim was to build up an underground army that would wage a Hindu “jihad.” The man, who called himself Parivartan – meaning change – also claimed the NDA was nurturing suicide bombers.

According to police, Parivartan is the name assumed by a 38-year-old man from Morang district in eastern Nepal – Ram Prasad Mainali. The NDA began to acquire a reputation after it set off a bomb in 2007 at the Kathmandu office of the Maoists, who had laid down arms and returned to mainstream politics. In 2008, it stepped up its pro-Hindu war, bombing two mosques in southern Nepal and killing two Muslims at prayer.

It also targeted a church in the east, a newspaper office and the interim Parliament on the day the latter officially announced Nepal a secular republic.

Though police began a half-hearted hunt for Mainali, the NDA struck again last July, killing a 62-year-old Catholic priest, the Rev. John Prakash, who was also the principal of the Don Bosco School run in Sirsiya town in southern Nepal by the Salesian fathers.

“Extortion and intimidation are the two prime motives of the NDA,” said a Catholic church official who requested anonymity for security reasons. “Father Prakash had withdrawn a large sum of money to pay salaries as well as for some ongoing construction. Someone in the bank must have informed the NDA. It has good contacts, it knows who we are and our phone numbers.”

Small churches in southern and eastern Nepal, which are often congregations of 40-50 people who worship in rented rooms, have been terrified by threats and demands for money, said representatives of the Christian community. Some congregations have reportedly paid extortion sums to avert attacks from the NDA.

“Though the NDA does not seem to have a well chalked-out strategy, its activities indicate it receives support from militant Hindu outfits in India,” said Bishop Sharma of the Protestant Believers’ Church. “It has been mostly active in the south and east, in areas close to the Indian border. Bellicose Hindu groups from north India are likely to support their quest for a Hindu Nepal.”

While Thapa has been charged with murder, Rana said police are also hunting for NDA chief Mainali. And the arrest of Thapa has not lightened the gloom of the Christian community nor lessened its fears.

“There have been instances galore of police arresting innocent people and forcing them to confess,” said Bishop Sharma. “Look at the case of Manja Tamang.”

Tamang, a Believers’ Church pastor, was released this week after serving nine years in prison for murder that his co-religionists say he did not commit. Tamang staunchly protests his innocence with his church standing solidly behind him, saying he was framed.

Report from Compass Direct News


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