Fr Sequeira's orphanage in flames
(Photo: © Edwin Vas)
After weeks of violent persecution, Orissa’s Christians now face forced conversion as they come out of hiding
“Re-convert to Hinduism or face the consequences.” That’s the stark message being given to Christians in Orissa, according to one bishop.
As many as 50,000 Christians have been forced to flee their homes in the last three weeks, in a wave of unprecedented violence.
They continue to flee village homes in fear, reports the Rt Rev PK Samantaroy, Bishop of Amritsar in the Church of North India. While Amritsar is on the other side of the country, Bishop Samantaroy is originally from Orissa and is deeply concerned at the situation.
Gruesome violence hits Orissa
All India Christian Council updates
Catholic AsiaNews dossier
Background feature from AICC
In what CMS is calling the worst persecution of Christians in India since independence, around 3,000 homes and 120 churches have been destroyed.
The total number of deaths is put at 14 by the government, yet local people claim the number is much higher. “It takes only one visit to the relief camps in the Kandhamal area to expose the government’s underreporting of Kandhamal’s dead,” says a report released through Amritsar Diocese.
Fear is the dominant reason why deaths remain unregistered - people are still in hiding and are too frightened to return to their villages to provide the evidence for the deaths.
The report quotes survivor Chiranjan Digal: “How can we offer proof when we couldn’t even go back to collect the ashes?”
“His brother Akbar Digal, a pastor, was allegedly beheaded because he refused to become a Hindu,” it continues. “People say that at least eight other pastors were killed.”
Earlier this month, a mob set upon Fr Edward Sequeira, a priest who runs an orphanage for children of lepers in Padampur.
After being beaten to the point of unconsciousness, he could only listen to the screams of one of one of the girls he had rescued, Rajani Majhi, as she was burned alive.
She was one of the older girls who would help to look after the other children - the attackers did not stop long enough to find out she was a Hindu.
The Government is only able to take effective action in the main cities, whereas the real needs are in the villages and small towns, according to some reports received by Adrian Watkins, CMS regional manger for South Asia.
Commentators say the local authorities and police appear to be complicit in the violence.
The Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI) is also reporting forced conversions of Christians to Hinduism.
“Christians hiding in the jungles have no choice as they receive instructions from…militant outfits to either convert to Hinduism or stay in the jungles,” says General Secretary the Rev Dr Richard Howell.
Fifty families in the villages of Damba, Patapanga and Tatamaha in Phulbani district have been forced to convert to Hinduism, according to EFI.
The violence of was sparked by the murder of a leading Hindu fundamentalist, Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati on 23 August.
While it is still unclear who was responsible for the murder, and local police blamed Maoist rebels, Hindu organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) have blamed Christian missionaries and unleashed a wave of unprecedented violence.
Christians across India protested on 29 August as nearly 50,000 Christian schools and colleges were closed down for the day.
The Church of North India presented a list of demands to the Governor of Orissa state on the day, including bringing in the army to take control of Kandhamal district and establishing a fast track court to deal with the perpetrators of the violence.
Yet the horror of the anti-Christian attacks is, according Bishop Samantaroy, being “diluted”.
It is painted by some as a reaction to coercive conversions by Christians, even though a controversial “Freedom of Religion” law has actually made it harder to convert from Hinduism.
“Though the Freedom of Religion Bill has been enacted in seven states of India not even one case of conversion by force or coercion is proved,” says Bishop Samantaroy.
“If a Hindu is to convert, permission from a magistrate is required but if a Christian is to convert no permission is necessary because it is called ‘homecoming’.”
While Orissa state has one of the highest concentrations of Hindus in India, with Muslims at only two per cent of the population and Christians at 2.4 per cent, Kandhamal district, at the centre of the violence, has 25 per cent Christians.
“The church in Orissa is mainly from the tribal and Dalit communities,” says CMS’s Adrian Watkins. “They are among the poorest, most oppressed and most marginalised Christian communities in India and globally.
“They are stuck at the bottom of the caste ladder.”
CMS is able to receive donations which will be sent to provide relief and support to the most affected and vulnerable communities in Orissa.