Attacks on Indian Christians rise

By  Catholic News Service
  • August 29, 2008

{mosimage}NEW DELHI - Catholic education institutions across India were to close Aug. 29 to protest the continuing violence against Christians that has left at least 10 people dead in India’s eastern Orissa state.

The church also will observe Sept. 7 as a day of prayer and fasting for Christians in Orissa, said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India at a press conference in New Delhi Aug. 26. The Asian church news agency UCA News reported on the press conference.

Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil, president of the conference, appealed to all Catholic groups to organize “peaceful rallies across the country to register strong protest against the repeated attacks” on Christians.

Reports indicate no letup in the anti-Christian violence. Church officials told UCA News that at least five people have died in the attacks. They recounted how armed men ransacked and burned church properties in the state.

The Vatican condemned the attacks Aug. 26 and expressed its solidarity with Catholics in Orissa. It urged everyone to recommit to dialogue and respect for one another.

“In reference to the tragic news coming from India of violence against the faithful and institutions of the Catholic Church, the Holy See, while expressing solidarity with the local churches and the religious congregations involved, reproves these actions that harm the dignity and freedom of persons and compromise peaceful civil co-existence,” said the Vatican statement.

Calling for an immediate halt to the violence, the Vatican asked Indians to “rebuild a climate of dialogue and mutual respect.”

Hindu radicals started attacking Christians after a Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and five of his associates were killed Aug. 23 in the state’s Kandhamal district. Maoists reportedly claimed responsibility for the killings, but some Hindu groups have alleged that Christians masterminded the killing, a charge all Christian churches and denominations have denied.

Fr. Mihir Upasi, director of the Berhampur diocese’s social service agency, said three days of violence had affected the archdiocese and all four dioceses — Balasore, Berhampur, Rourkela and Sambalpur — in Orissa.

Upasi told UCA News Aug. 26 that only a little information is available from priests and nuns in parishes, because the violence has made communication difficult. Most have gone into hiding, he added.

The priest explained that mayhem broke out Aug. 25 when Hindu radical groups observed a statewide shutdown to protest the Hindus’ killing. Mobs threw stones at the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archbishop’s residence in the state capital despite a police presence, he added.

The worst-affected area is Kandhamal, where the 85-year-old Hindu leader was based. For several decades the swami had opposed conversions to Christianity.

Bidhan Nayak, a Catholic social worker in Kandhamal, told UCA News Aug. 26 that Hindu radicals killed one person in Badimunda village. Despite a curfew, armed Hindu activists roamed the area “in a one-sided attack,” he said.

Another mob molested a Catholic nun working with the pastoral centre in Nuagaon, also in Kandhamal. Nayak said most local Christians have fled to forested areas.

Hitesh Kumar Nayak, a lawyer who was in Balliguda, told UCA News another nun was injured there the same day. Mobs ransacked a Catholic and three Pentecostal churches in the same village, he added.

Fr. Mrutyunjay Digal, secretary to the archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, told UCA News that when a mob came to ransack the Balliguda-based pastoral centre, its director, Fr. Thomas Challan, and administrator, Sr. Meena, took shelter in the house of Jashawanta Pradhan, a Hindu. But a mob came to the house the next day and dragged the priest and nun to a police station. Digal said the two were still at the police station.

Fr. Alphonse Toppo, vicar general of the Sambalpur diocese, told UCA News that a mob burned to death Rajani Majhi, a 20-year-old nurse at a hospital for children afflicted by leprosy. The mob also beat Fr. Edward Sequeira, the director of the hospital in Bargarh parish.

In another incident, two Catholics and a Hindu were killed in Tiangia village in the Betticola parish of the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar.

Archbishop Pedro Lopez Quintana, the Vatican nuncio to India, told Vatican Radio Aug. 26 that the Hindu fundamentalists are trying to impose a Hindu state on the entire population; the fundamentalists, he said, use “an ideology with a Nazi, totalitarian foundation.”

“Religion is used as an instrument of manipulation,” he said. The fundamentalists try to convince other Hindus that Christianity is a foreign ideology and that newly converted Christians, financially supported by foreign organizations, will take their jobs.

However, the archbishop said, he is not fearful for the future.

“Hope is a reality that exists in India because dialogue and co-existence are part of the reality of Indian society,” he said.

Lopez said the Catholic Church in India “is resolute and, despite this horrendous experience of violence, it will go back to carrying out its work for the good of all, particularly for the poorest.”

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