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by Anna Arco
The Catholic Herald
September 5, 2008 (UK)
Rioters have murdered at least 14 Christians and driven thousands of others from their homes in some of the worst anti-Christian violence in India’s history.
As communal fighting continued in the Orissa province this week, at least 60 churches, many of them Catholic, and religious buildings were burned to the ground and thousands of homes destroyed.
Hindu mobs started attacking Christians in the Kandhamal region after Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, leader of the hard-line Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and four of his associates were assassinated last month.
The government attributed the killings to Maoist extremists and a senior Maoist leader later claimed responsibility. But Hindu activists in the region blamed Christians, with whom they have had a historically uneasy relationship.
As The Catholic Herald went to press some human rights groups reported as many as 40 people murdered. Conservative estimates suggested that some 6,000 people had fled to government-run refugee camps, with an estimated 5,000 more hiding in forests around Kandhamal. But Church groups said tens of thousands had fled the violence.
In one of the worst reported incidents, a lay Catholic in Tiangia was literally ripped apart by a frenzied mob while two others were left so badly injured they later died from their wounds.
Religious and priests have also been targeted and at least six have been seriously injured. One 21-year-old lay missionary was burned alive in the orphanage where she was working and several nuns have been raped, according to reports. Members of the Missionary Sisters of Charity — the order founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta — were pelted with stones leaving one sister seriously injured, said Asia News, a Vatican-based news agency.
In another incident rioters tried to set a priest on fire, but then stripped and beat him instead while a nun who was with him was raped repeatedly by the assailants. The mob tried to force the priest to also rape the nun as the police stood by, according to Catholic News Service, a US-based press agency. When the priest refused they attacked him with iron bars.
The rioting escalated, spreading across the region, and police and paramilitaries extended the curfew from nine districts to three more on Monday. Although officials said that the violence would be over by the weekend the clashes continued. On Sunday night four more churches and dozens of houses were burned down.
Tension began spreading to other Indian provinces including Karnataka and Madya Pradesh in central India where Bajrang Dal groups, the VHP's youth wing, burnt effigies of missionaries.
Scuffles between Hindus and Christian students also broke out.
The National United Christian Forum, which is led by Archbishop Vincent Concessao of New Delhi, has appealed to Christians across India to help “the relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction of churches and homes damaged in Orissa in the wake of the worst ever communal riots against Christians”. The forum also criticised the police for being “mere bystanders as the rioters rampaged through village after village”. It has also called for this Sunday to be a Day of Prayer and Fasting in solidarity with the victims of the uprisings.
There is a history of violence against Christians in Orissa, where high numbers of lower-caste Indians are converting to Christianity. Missionary work has angered Hindus, who claim that Christians bribe people to convert. However, many lower-caste Indians abandon Hinduism to escape the near-slavery and poor living conditions in which the caste system entraps them.
A delegation of civil leaders met President Shrimati Pratibha Patil on Monday to demand that she stop the rioting. It included Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar and Archbishop Concessao. It called for legal action against the three radical Hindu groups — the VHP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Bajrang Dal — for inciting the violence.
Across India nearly 50,000 Christian schools closed in solidarity with children in the Orissa province. Catholics alone manage some 20,700 educational institutions in India. Fr Babu Joseph, the spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said: “All Christian schools in the city and across the country are closed to express solidarity with the innocent people in Orissa who have been targeted. Rallies were held in several parts of the country.”
Pope Benedict XVI spoke out against the attacks in Orissa during his general audience last week, saying that he was deeply saddened by them. “While I firmly condemn every attack on human life, whose sacredness must be respected by all, I express spiritual closeness and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the faith who are so harshly tried,” the Pope said.
In Calcutta the Sisters of Charity held subdued celebrations for the anniversary of Mother Teresa's birthday. A Solemn Mass and prayers for the victims of the attacks took the place of the lively, joyful festivities that usually mark August 26.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the violence as a “national disgrace” and promised compensation.