TRELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN ASIA - Violence in Orissa (India)

Violence in Orissa (India)
Ando Isamu s.j. (Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)
Since the end of August 2008 India has shown an increasing violent persecution of Christians. Violence erupted first in Orissa State in eastern India and spread to Karnataka in the south and Madhya Pradesh in central India.
The attacks have occurred in states where the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party is either ruling or is a partner in the ruling coalition.
According to Indian political commentator P.V. Thomas (October 3, 2008 / ASIA FOCUS), Hindu fundamentalists have realized that the Christian influence on Indians is far deeper and greater than their numerical strength. The minuscule Christian community has envious command over education and health-care sectors. As a result, people influenced by Christians now manage India's statecraft.
Besides that, Hindu radicals resent Christians working among tribal and dalit (former "untouchable") people. These account for 22% of India's population.
The pattern of the recent attacks against Christians shows they were premeditated and well planned. Earlier they targeted Muslims (over 12% of the Indian population) but they had to change their tactics when Muslims retaliated with violence. By alienating Christians and Muslims Hindu fundamentalists hope to consolidate Hindu votes for the general elections going to take place in 2009. Violence could escalate in the coming months.

Anti-Christian Violence in Orissa
Violence by Hindu radicals began after gunmen killed 85 -year-old Hindu religious leader Swami Laxmanananda and 5 of his associates on August 23, 2008. Maoists reportedly claimed responsibility for the killings on Aug. 24. They said they killed the senior member of the Hindu radical group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, world Hindu council) for mixing religion with politics. The 85-year-old Hindu leader had for several decades opposed conversions to Christianity. The VHP and Hindu right-wing groups have rejected the Maoist claim. Gouri Prasad Rath, a senior VHP leader in Orissa state, told reporters on Aug. 24 that his group sees "a clear Christian conspiracy" behind the attack.
ASIA FOCUS (October 3, 2008) reports that several houses, churches and a Missionary of Charity convent had been destroyed in resurgent anti-Christian violence in Orissa state. Radical Hindu mobs armed with iron bars, machetes and swords roamed villages in Kandhamal district, where 109 houses and at least 3 churches were destroyed Sept. 24-25. Besides, the regional Superior of the Missionaries of Charity nuns told UCA News that about 700 armed people arrived in open trucks on September 25 night at the premises of the parish Church in Sukananda village, Kandhamal district, and destroyed the church, priest's residence and the Sisters' convent.

A Letter from St. Joseph's College
Earlier, on September 19, 2008 St. Joseph's College, Bangalore, sent an open letter to the Chief Minister of Karnataka criticizing the serious anti-Christian attacks. Let me highlight its main points. Here are excerpts of the letter, posted on September 19 at a Social Justice Blog of the Social Justice Secretariat of the Society of Jesus.

"Dear Sir,

We write to you as members of the Staff of St. Joseph's College and as secular citizens of the state of Karnataka deeply distressed by the recent attacks on educational institutions and churches in Mangalore and elsewhere in Karnataka.
We are a college of 126 years, the very first private college of the city with a rich legacy of educating generations of students of different faiths in the ideals of democracy and secularism. Thousands of citizens in the state owe their education into secularism to this college where students have lived and learned as members of one human family...
Over the years, we have educated a variety of students, pundits, scientists, activists, journalists, technocrats, bureaucrats, politicians, businessmen, sports persons and women primarily from the state of Karnataka though there have been students from outside the state and the country. We have never imposed a world-view of our own on the students. Instead we have encouraged critical thinking and learning. Freedom of thought and expression has always characterized education in St. Joseph's. Moreover we have enhanced our services these many years to foster the needs and desires of the marginalized. We continue to admit and provide educational opportunities to a wide community of educationally and socially backward classes, scheduled castes and scheduled tribes. We have thus produced sensitive and learned leaders among the Dalit and backward communities. We are extremely proud of students from subaltern communities who have turned into agents of radical social change. Our credentials as a secular and progressive institution concerned about the well-being of all is a truth well known to all...
St. Joseph's College belongs to no party. But we remain concerned with what is taking place in the state. Inculcating social awareness and increasing social concern is one of the main thrusts of the college. As an educational institution with high moral and ethical credentials, we are concerned about the divisive politics that polarizes people on the basis of religion. What disturbs us is the mean claim that your party and your cadres make that Christian institutions are involved in forced conversion just to defame and malign. Every citizen in this country has been given the right to practice, profess and propagate one's religion by the Constitution. In fact, the college is administered on the principles of egalitarianism, concern for the weak and compassion to the suffering - universal human doctrines which are Christian as well...
In writing to you, we want to make it clear that we have no personal interests. Our concern is the state of Karnataka and its people. This state does not need debates on conversion or terrorism. What the state needs is debate on development, inequalities, peace and harmony. There has been in the last few days a campaign of hate that has been systematically carried out by your affiliates and sometimes your own cadres. They have victimized innocent citizens, harmed and destroyed people and their lives. They have violated the dignity of women including the cloistered religious nuns recently who spend time in prayer and are out of touch with the rest of the world. They have devastated neighborhoods and the everyday harmony of human existence. Is this truly development? How can we build development without peace and harmony? And how can we build peace and harmony without development?...
So we appeal to you, as an educational institution of higher learning with a history of 126 years, that was a part of the freedom struggle, to work for secularism, harmony, tolerance, and development so that together we may build a humane and progressive human community in Karnataka. We as a college community urge you most sincerely to stop hate, stop destruction of Churches and educational institutions and restore peace and harmony in the state. We assure you of our cooperation in the task of building a secular state in the true spirit of diversity and pluralism. Of course, we shall continue to dissent in the true democratic spirit of the constitution when the constitution of the land is under attack.
Thanking you.

Principal, Dr. (Fr.) Ambrose Pinto SJ
St. Joseph's College, Bangalore
(Signed by 75 teaching staff, 18th September 2008)"

International Reactions
On September 26, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, President of the Indian bishops' conference and Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, Secretary General of the same conference issued a public statement regarding the ongoing wave of persecution against Christians at the hands of Hindu extremists.
"Shocked and grieved by the incidents of extreme violence unleashed against the Christian community recently in various parts of our Country, the members of the Standing Committee (Executive Body) of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India express their utter disappointment at the apathy and inaction of the Governments at the Centre and in the States."
The official statement recalls the tragic events taking place, like innocent people murdered, women molested, churches and religious places desecrated and burned and houses of Christians destroyed in Kandhamal and several districts of Orissa. The Bishops demand that stronger and stringent action be taken against all kinds of anti-social and anti-religious elements that violate human rights and terrorize people. The Bishops express their solidarity with the victims of violence, especially those in Orissa who have been rendered homeless, who are forced to flee into forests, who still languish in relief camps and who are being still cruelly threatened to give up their Christian faith.
On October 2, European bishops, during a meeting of the presidents of 36 Bishops' Conferences of Europe gathered in Esztergom, Hungary, issued a press statement calling all European governments and institutions to act in every way possible to bring an end to ongoing anti-Christian violence in India. "According to our sources, there have been 60 casualties, thousands of wounded and tens of thousands of people who have been forced to flee between 23 August and now."
And again, on October 1, Amnesty International said that despite Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's statement in Paris on September 30 that the violence was a "national shame" and that his government had taken a "firm stand" to halt it "violence against the Christian minorities has continued." Amnesty called on the Indian government to "match its words with its actions and ensure that members of the Christian minority community in the eastern state of Orissa are protected against renewed communal violence." (UCAN News, October 6, 2008)
The Editorial "Persecution in Orissa" of America magazine (September 22, 2008) quotes Pope Benedict XVI appeal for peace that, condemning the attacks, made reference to India's long and proud tradition of religious tolerance: "I ask religious leaders and civil authorities to work together to reestablish among the members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and harmony that have always been a hallmark of Indian society."
And at the world synod of bishops just closed a few days ago, Indian Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil spoke on October 6 in the presence of Pope Benedict XVI and 240 cardinals and bishops denouncing the violence against Christians in India, particularly in the eastern state of Orissa, as one of the worst persecutions in the life of the nation. The persecution has led to the deaths of about 80 people and thousands have become refugees in Orissa, he told the synod. (Asia Focus, October 17, 2008)
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