By Santosh Digal, BosNewsLife Asia Correspondent
BAMUNIGAM, INDIA (BosNewsLife)-- Indian church leaders on Thursday, December 27, appealed to authorities to intervene after Hindu extremists attacked dozens of Christian institutions, including churches, in the religiously volatile eastern state of Orissa over Christmas, reportedly killing up to three people and injuring many others.
In a memorandum to Orissa State Chief Minister Naveen Patttnaik, obtained by BosNewsLife, regional Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath said there were "atrocities committed against Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal District and also in many places in the Archdiocese."
At least 14 churches, four convents, three houses of priests, and eight hostels were "fully or partially destroyed" and "numerous Christians" injured in Kandhamal, said John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council of the Indian government in remarks published by human rights group International Christian Concern with Web site www.persecution.org.
In addition, about 15 shops were destroyed or looted and local media said at least three people, including two Christians, were killed by Hindu mobs targeting Christian believers in the district on Tuesday, December 24 and Christmas Day. Previous reports spoke of one person killed. Among those killed was a tribal of Barakhama village who was allegedly hacked to death by unidentified persons, news reports said.
Meanwhile "many" priests and nuns remained in hiding Thursday, December 27, amid fears of more anti-Christian violence, church sources told BosNewsLife. Christian missionaries were also targeted, but there were no reports of injuries, BosNewsLife established.
"The situation in Kandhamal has sobered down a bit as the government declared a curfew in the whole district, but the threat of destruction of more churches and church institutions is still there," said Priest Mathew Poovan of the area of Puri in an interview with BosNewsLife. “So the situation is still very volatile," he added.
Archbishop Cheenath said the bloodshed began early Tuesday, December 24, in the small town of Bamunigam, about 336 kilometers (210 miles) southwest of the state capital of Bhubaneswar. "Hindu fundamentalists forcefully removed the Christmas decorations which a local business association had put up [across the town] as a preparation for Christmas." After "some quarrels" a group of people attacked the Christians "with sticks, knives and other lethal weapons," he said, adding that the violence soon spread.
Among several other reported incidents on Tuesday, December 24, up to 500 angry Hindus accusing Christians of "forced conversions" marched into the nearby town of Balliguda, destroying and burning the large parish Church and adjacent buildings, including a seminary and students hostel. The same crowd also "burned down" Balliguda’s Baptist church and attacked another church belonging to Pentecostal Christians, local Christians told BosNewsLife.
There were also tensions in the capital Bhubaneswar where a midnight Christmas Mass was interrupted when an unidentified suspect threw an apparent bomb on the archbishop’s residence in Bhubaneswar. It did not explode and there was no damage, news reports said.
Violence continued on Christmas Day, December 25, when Hindu extremists attacked and destroyed the main Catholic Church in Bamunigam, according to witnesses. They also entered nearby Catholic villages, burning down family homes and other properties as well as at least three village churches, church sources said.
Elsewhere, the Mount Carmel Convent in the town of Phulbani was reportedly attacked by a Hindu mob, who also destroyed a new school bus. Local priests and sisters were advised by local police to move out, before militants returned to further attack the convent and a church, witnesses said.
In his memorandum to Chief Minister Patttnaik, Archbishop Cheenath complained that police had not done enough to prevent the violence. "We don’t see anywhere sufficient number of police [officers] to provide security to the Christians. The [Hindu] fundamentalists are forcing the Christians to leave their homes and take refuge in the forest," Cheenath added.
Police said however they have detained over a dozen suspects and that security has been stepped up in the region. It was not immediately clear who was behind the violence but local Christians said Hindu mobs seem to have been encouraged by Hindu nationalist organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad or 'World Hindu Council' which opposes the spread of Christianity and what it calls "forced conversions."
Analysts say Orissa is a stronghold of Hindu nationalism. An anti-conversion law has been in place since 1968 in an attempt to block missionary activities by Christians. In 1967 the state adopted the Freedom of Religion Act, which started the process that has led to what human rights groups and churches describe as "repressive" anti-conversion laws.
This week’s violence has underscored concerns about anti-Christian attacks in Orissa where Christians are a poor and marginalized minority, church observers say.
Among the most widely published incidents involving Hindu militants in Orissa was an attack in 1999 when Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his two small children were burnt alive while they were sleeping in their car. (With reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos).
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