Christians in India face prospect of more attacks by extremists
September 11, 2008
Rhys Blakely in Bombay
Attacks on nuns, churches and Christian refugees across India are stoking fears that Hindu extremists are planning to target minority communities as the country prepares for a general election.
The worst anti-Christian violence in India since independence 60 years ago came in Kandhamal district, in the state of Orissa, in recent weeks. Hindu fanatics attempted to poison water sources at relief camps holding at least 15,000 people displaced by mob violence, local activists alleged. Hundreds of Christian refugees in the region were told not to return to their homes unless they converted to Hinduism.
In Chattisgarh, central India, two nuns from the Missionaries of Charity, the order founded by Mother Teresa, were beaten by a mob when they took four orphans to an adoption centre.
A spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India said: “These nuns are known for spending their life for the service of the poorest of the poor in the world. In India most of the beneficiaries of their services belong to the Hindu society.”
A church was burnt down in Karnataka, southern India, the state that recorded the highest number of anti-Christian incidents in India last year. There were also reports of violence in Madhya Pradesh, central India.
The Catholic Church said that at least 35 people — many of them burnt alive — had been killed by Hindu extremists in Orissa since August 23. It is feared that the country is on course for an even greater tragedy as hardline groups seek to mobilise support in an election year. The deadline for the general election is next May. A UN investigation gave warning that India was in danger of a repeat of the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, which claimed 2,500 lives.
Asma Jahangir, a special rapporteur on religious freedom for the UN, said: “There is a real risk that similar communal violence might happen again unless incitement to religious hatred and political exploitation of communal tensions are effectively prevented.”
She added: “Organised groups based on religious ideologies have unleashed the fear of mob violence in many parts of the country.”
The crisis in Orissa began over the murder of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a local figurehead for the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an extremist Hindu group. Saraswati had campaigned against the alleged forced conversion of poor Hindus to Christianity by Western-backed missionaries. Hindu extremists dismissed a claim of responsibility from Maoist militants for the murder and blamed Christians. They refused to condemn the murder of Christians that followed.
Gauri Prasad Rath, the president of the VHP in Orissa, said: “I do not condemn the violence against Christians. I condemn the killing of Hindu sage Swami Laxmananda Saraswati ... Christians killed him.”
The decision to take the body of Saraswati on a two-day procession of the state led to the violence when the ceremony was used as an anti-Christian rally. It is believed to have been sanctioned by the RSS, an influential Hindu fundamentalist group that holds sway over the BJP, the largest Indian opposition party.
Some moderate Hindus suggested that the RSS exploited the murder of Saraswati for political ends - a course of events that would echo UN warnings on “political exploitation of communal tensions”.
“The murder of Saraswati was a gift for the RSS,” Dhirendra Panda, a Hindu member of the Committee for Communal Harmony in Bhubaneswar, an independent civil group, said. “They will decide when the violence ends