Hindu Mobs Burning Christian Homes and Churches
The Supreme Court on Wednesday ordered the government of eastern Orissa state to report by Thursday on the steps it was taking to stop the rioting.
The petition was brought by a Catholic archbishop, who called for the deployment of sufficient riot police and an independent probe into the state’s response to the crisis.
In a wave of violence triggered by the death of a controversial Hindu religious figure last month, Hindu mobs have burnt down hundreds of Christian homes and churches, killing at least 20 people and injuring many more.
Among the reported atrocities, a 22-year-old woman named as Rajani Majhi was burned alive as she tried to save children at a Christian orphanage. A nun was reportedly gang-raped and a pastor killed and his body dismembered.
An estimated 50,000 Christians, Catholics and Protestants, have fled their homes, many going into hiding in the jungle and others sheltering under police guard in makeshift camps.
At the center of the upheaval, say Christian representatives, is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council), a fundamentalist group strongly opposed to the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.
The hardliners have long accused Christians of luring or bribing Hindus, especially those designated as “dalits” or “untouchables” in the rigid Hindu caste system, to convert. Christians say those who have converted do so willingly, to escape the caste system.
Orissa’s state government requires police permission before a person may change religion and has outlawed what it calls “forced” conversions.
The trouble in Orissa was a new wave of inter-religious violence that has been simmering for years, and last December saw four people killed and scores of churches and homes torched.
During the December violence, Christians accused veteran Orissa VHP figure Laxmanananda Saraswati – not for the first time – of inciting followers to turn on Christians and churches.
For its part, the VHP accused Christians of attacking Saraswati, who was in his 80s; Christian leaders said the Hindu leader’s car was confronted after an earlier clash instigated by local Hindus opposing a Christmas event.
Eight months later, on August 23, Saraswati was killed by unknown assailants, along with four followers.
While acknowledging “major differences” with Saraswati, the All-India Christian Council (AICC) condemned the killing, saying “we wish peace to everyone and urge everyone to follow the rule of law.”
But, despite the fact Maoist terrorists claimed responsibility for the assassination, the VHP blamed Christians and linked his death to Saraswati’s anti-proselytizing stance.
The day after the killing, the VHP in a statement attributed Saraswati’s death to “supposed Christian activists,” but subsequent statements dropped the uncertainty, accusing “Christian elements” and then “Christian fundamentalist activists” of killing the leader.
Two days later, VHP leader Prabinbhai Togadia at a press conference demanded that the Orissa government catch, put on trial and sentence to death Saraswati’s killers. He also demanded that a commission be set up “to look into the activities of churches, missionaries, church-sponsored NGOs, foreign funding to NGOs working for conversion, and strict implementation of anti-conversion laws.”
Accusations against Christians also came from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party which is in opposition in the central government but in a coalition government ruling Orissa.
The violence that erupted across Orissa in the aftermath of Saraswati’s death has continued into this week, despite curfews, police deployment and several hundred arrests.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI) reported Tuesday that Hindu hardliners were forcing some Christians to revert to Hinduism and to attack their own churches.
Protests also spilled over into neighboring Andhra Pradesh state which, according the VHP, “has become a hotbed of blatant proselytizing activities of Christian church in the last few years.”
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the violence shamed India, urged the state government to bring the culprits to justice, and pledged financial assistance packages to survivors.
But the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, on Wednesday pressed for more action.
“Post-riot humanitarian aid does not obscure the need for both the Orissa state and the Indian central government to take action to address persistent sectarian tensions in Orissa, and to prevent future eruptions of violence,” said the commission, an independent statutory body that advises the administration and Congress on religious freedom issues.
The commission said the State Department must urge the Indian government to make more vigorous and effective efforts to stem the violence and to implement reforms to ensure prompt investigation of and accountability for the attacks.
“Because of the size and repeated nature of these attacks, these matters should not be left in the hands of state officials alone,” said commission chairwoman Felice Gaer. “The central government needs to be involved as the severity and extent of these attacks warrant a national-level investigation and response.”
Although not uncritical of Christian missionary activity, political analyst Bahukutumbi Raman, director of the Institute for Topical Studies in Chennai, voiced concern Thursday about the effect of the tensions and violence on India.
“If India is to take its place as an important power in the world and as the equal, if not the better, of China, it is important for all right-thinking people – whatever be their religion or language or political background – to come together to strongly oppose these new divisive trends in our society and nation,” he said.
Christians make up less then three percent of India’s 1.1 billion, predominantly Hindu population.