Persecutions Plague Christians in Indian State

NEW DELHI, India — An incident in the Indian state of Orissa has left Christians as refugees miles from home.

In early February, nine Christians — including seven women — were stripped, molested and had their heads shaved by Hindu fundamentalists. They were persecuted for refusing to give up their faith. Terrorized Christians in the remote Kalipala village in eastern Orissa, fled for their lives.

“This shows the pathetic situation of the Christians there,” John Dayal, a leading Christian-rights campaigner, said Feb. 27 after returning from Orissa, where he met with the persecuted Christians.

Dayal said when Hindu fundamentalist groups learned that three Kalipala villagers planned to embrace Christianity, they intimidated the local Christians and forced out the Christian men, leaving the women and children behind.

Soon afterward, dozens of Hindu militants arrived in the village, forcefully entered the houses of 11 Christian families, and stripped and molested the women for refusing to reconvert to Hinduism. Besides setting Bibles ablaze, the Hindus sprinkled cow dung on the heads of some of their victims after shaving their heads.

The trauma did not end there, according to Dayal. The Christians were packed into a van and taken to a distant village, where they were forcibly “reconverted” to Hinduism amid chanting of Vedic hymns before they managed to flee to Bhubaneswar to publicize the incident.

Dayal, who is vice president of the All India Catholic Union and also secretary-general of the ecumenical All India Christian Council, reported that the Christian villagers are “scared of going back to their village, and they have no guarantee that their lives will be safe if they go back.”

This fear appears well founded, given the response of the Orissa state government in which the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party is a coalition partner.

Evangelical pastor Subhas Samal, who went to the local police to complain about the attack on his Christian congregation, was reportedly tortured by the police. And when he returned from the police station, baton-wielding Hindu fundamentalists forced the pastor to denounce his faith publicly.

“This is not an isolated incident. There is a nefarious plan behind this to isolate and force Christians to forsake their faith in tribal areas,” said Dayal, who has been rushing to hot spots across India wherever Christians have been on the receiving end of hostile propaganda and violence from Hindu militants.

“There may not be fresh murders in Orissa,” Dayal added, “but things have gone from bad to worse since the murder of [Graham Stuart] Staines and Father Arul Doss.”

Australian Baptist missionary Staines, who ran a leprosy home in Orissa for three decades, was torched alive in January 1999 by a Hindu mob. The leader of the mob, Dara Singh, was sentenced to death last September for the crime. Staines' two young sons, who were sleeping with him in his van, also perished in the tragedy in the remote village of Manoharpur.

That incident was followed in September 1999 by the murder of Father Doss of the Diocese of Balasore, who was shot with arrows in another remote village.

More recently, a Catholic church was desecrated and an effigy of Christ was burned on the road in the Deogarh district last November after activist followers of Hindu fundamentalist Bajrang Dal visited the area to protest the conversion of three Hindus to Christianity.

Following those attacks, the Orissa United Christian Forum criticized the state government for its failure to protect minorities and their religious places. Though Orissa had reported nearly 200 cases of attacks on Christian targets in one recent year alone, the forum leaders pointed out that in most cases, the culprits remain free, as police never take action because of political pressure.

“The government is simply not concerned about these [attacks],” said Divine Word Missionary Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttak-Bhubaneswar. When a Church team traveling in a jeep in a remote area was attacked last year, Archbishop Cheenath said, they went to police register a complaint.

“But the police simply refused to even file a case or accompany them,” Archbishop Cheenath said.

“We are now used to such a response,” he added.

Selective Law

Under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act — amended in 1999 in response to complaints by Hindus of coercive conversions by Christians — anyone intending to change his religion must submit a declaration to a local magistrate about his intent to change his religion on “his own will.” The magistrate is then required to forward the declaration to police to find any objection to the proposed conversion.

Even if the magistrate approves a planned conversion to Christianity, the religious minister involved is supposed to divulge the date, time and place of the conversion ceremony to the magistrate 15 days prior to the ceremony.

But when more than 100 Christians were forcibly reconverted to Hinduism in the Sundargarh district in 2002, complaints by Christian groups failed to provoke legal action from the state, which is under the command of Hindu fundamentalists. Christians number more than a quarter-million of Orissa's 36 million people.

“This seems to be a law only meant to be used against Christians. Otherwise, how can [Hindu fundamentalists] so freely terrorize Christians to give up their faith?” Archbishop Cheenath asked.

The Catholic Church's appeal challenging the legality of the controversial legislation is now pending in India's federal Supreme Court.

Apart from the “reconversion” campaign, Dayal charged that Hindu fundamentalists are following “a deliberate and systematic agenda” in the tribal areas of Orissa and other states “to isolate the Christians.” Though Christians and other tribal people have lived in peace in the areas for decades, Dayal warned that with the arrival of Hindu fundamentalists in these remote regions, “poor Christians are heading for harsh times. ”

And, Dayal said, with Hindu groups spreading “poison against Christians” in the minds of other tribal people in remote areas, “even their survival is becoming difficult. In many areas, Christian tribals are now facing social and economic boycott.”

Anto Akkara writes from New Delhi, India.