Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati
Manish Swarup/AP
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

Catholic Clergy Under Attack in Eastern Indian Province

August 29, 2008 03:41 PM
by Anne Szustek
Inter-sectarian violence in India’s Orissa province is on the wane, leaving thousands displaced and exposing the area’s long-standing inter-sectarian tensions.

Hindu-Catholic Violence Fades, Displaces Thousands

As of Aug. 29, at least 13 people have been killed in connection with sectarian violence besieging India’s Orissa province. Riots instigated by backers of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the leader of radical Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad as well as another group, Sangh Parivar, have overtaken the region, sending at least 6,000 people to take up shelter in government-run camps and displacing 5,000 people to hide in forests, according to Reuters.

Krishan Kumar, chief administrator of Orissa’s Kandhamal district, told Reuters that “Hindu and Christian peace committees have been meeting and the leaders have appealed for calm,” suggesting that the attacks may be waning.

Saraswati was slain on Saturday. Indian police allege that Maoist rebels were responsible for the attack. But Hindu hardliners, long suspicious of missionaries in Orissa, are pointing the finger at Christians for the attack.

Hindu nationalist leader Praveen Togadia told Agence-France Presse, “The Christian missionaries are responsible for the murder.” The Associated Press attributes a similar response to Subhash Chauhan, a Hindu Nationalist Organization leader

On Thursday, the Italian foreign ministry announced it planned to call the Indian ambassador to demand “incisive action to stop the violence.” Some 3,000 Christians protested in front of Orissa state government buildings in Indian capital New Delhi to condemn a perceived lack of action to stop the violence. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called on Orissa officials to move for peace.

Many of the region’s dalits, members of the “untouchable” castes, have converted to religions other than Hinduism, including Christianity, in a bid to escape the hierarchical system enmeshed with local religious traditions.

But Hindu extremists claim the missionaries are “bribing” them to convert in exchange for health care and education, an allegation churches repudiate. Saraswati claimed that the missionaries instigated “forced conversions,” writes AFP.

Groups of protesters milled about Orissa shouting “Kill the Christians; destroy their institutions,” reported Catholic news service AsiaNews.

Kumar told Reuters that 37 of the Christian converts went back to Hinduism, although it was unclear if the change in religion was forced.

Police instituted a curfew on Tuesday in Orissa’s Kandamal district to curb the rape, murder and arson that followed Saturday’s assassination of Saraswati. A day later, authorities announced an order to “shoot on sight” anyone seen outside past specified hours.

Accounts of Orissa Attacks

Among the 13 dead include a person who was trapped in a home set ablaze by arsonists on Wednesday in the village of Phiringia, located some 170 miles to the west of BhubaneshwaOrissa’s provincial capital, high-ranking state official Satyabraha Sahoo told the AP.

He also said that a mob poured kerosene on another person in Mukandpur, a nearby village, setting him on fire Tuesday night.

In Barakhama, another nearby village, four were killed in gunfire between rival factions on Tuesday, Navin Patnaik, Orissa’s top elected official reported to the AP.

On Monday, mobs broke into an orphanage operated by Catholic missionaries, then bruned it to the ground. A Hindu woman was burned alive in the blaze and a priest on premises sustained serious injuries. A nun working at another area orphanage located in the Bargarh district suffered the same fate, local priest Ajay Singh told AsiaNews.

Sahoo said that the same day four others in the area burned to death, including two who died when their hut was torched.

Gangs of Hindu radicals gang-raped a nun working at the Social Centre in Bhubaneshwar before setting the building ablaze, reported Asia News.

Militants allegedly stoned the Catholic archbishop’s residence in Bhubaneshwar but did not advance into the compound due to a police blockade. A local order of the Sisters of Mother Theresa was the target of another stoning attack, according to AsiaNews. There are reports that one nun was seriously injured.

In the town of Phulbani, the church, a student hostel and a building housing members of the clergy fell to arson, sending priests to take up safe haven at the homes of members of their congregations.

There have been reports of other clergy getting injured or abducted. A group of local bishops has called for area Catholic schools to be closed on Friday in protest. State authorities have not confirmed several of the attacks reported by church news services.

Background: Sectarian violence in India

Generally relations are calm among the country’s Hindu majority, Muslims, which account for 14 percent of the country’s population of 2.2 billion, according to the AP and Christians, who make up about 2.5 percent of the country. But there is a history of violence between Hindus and Christians in Orissa. Some 20 churches were burned down and four people murdered during another outbreak of violence in that region. In 1999, after a Bible study class an Australian missionary and his two school-age sons died after burning to death in their car.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar diocese told publication Indian Catholic that “the attacks are rooted in the radical ideology that wants to make India a Hindu nation. The radical slogan is: one nation, one culture, one religion for India.” 

Long-standing religious tensions re-erupted earlier this month in the Jammu-Kashmir region in India’s Himalaya region. A dispute over territory near the Amarnath cave, a holy pilgrimage site for Hindus who worship Shiva, has led to several deaths, a halt in supplies to the region and Muslim-led strikes from work.

Riots between Muslims and Hindus flared in 2002 in the province of Gujarat after dozens of Hindu pilgrims were killed in a train fire. According to the BBC, more than 1,000 people, many of them Muslims, died in the ensuing violence. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been dubbed by some critics as “the merchant of death” for perceived failure to quell religious tensions in the region. His supporters maintain that he could have done little to stem the violence in the area, and point to his business-friendly economic policies as a boon for Gujarat. Modi reportedly receives support from Hindu nationalist groups.

Most Recent Beyond The Headlines