By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service
ORISSA STATE, EASTERN INDIA (ANS) -- More than 600 churches have been demolished, 4,000 Christians forced to flee from their villages, and at least 25 killed as a result of violent persecution in the state of Orissa in eastern India.
Reports from the area say Vishwa Hindu Parishad religious leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his associates were murdered in the Kandhamal District of Orissa on Saturday, August 23.
Although a Maoist group claimed responsibility for the murders, supporters of the slain leader claim that Christians were behind the killings. Hindu fundamentalists have launched a series of attacks against Christians in retaliation.
Since Sunday, August 24, churches, schools and other institutions, prayer rooms, and homes of Christians have been ransacked, burnt and destroyed. Christians have been assaulted and reportedly at least twenty-five have been killed, some of them burnt alive or cut into pieces.
In an August 26 email to the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), Swarupananda Patra, General Secretary of the All Orissa Baptist Churches Federation, said â€œAll Christian villages [are] empty in Kandhamal as Christians, old and young, sick and pregnant mothers [are] hiding in forests exposed to the non-stop monsoon rains without food.â€
He reported that Kandhamal is the hardest hit, with at least eight Christians killed and almost all Christian homes demolished, but Christians in the districts of Balasore, Bargarh, and Kalahandi are also experiencing severe persecution.
Patra also appealed for prayer. â€œNow we have no request except prayer from our Baptist world as we do not know how to face tomorrow.â€
P. Ramesh Kumar, Principal of the Balasore Technical School, reported to the BWA on August 25, â€œWe are all under immense danger and threat from these groups.â€¦Please continue to uphold us in your prayer particularly for the safety of Christian brothers and sisters who are now hiding themselves in jungles.â€
In response to the attacks, BWA General Secretary Neville Callam said, â€œUnfortunate events have taken place in Orissa in recent days. These began with the senseless killing of Hindu Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on August 23. I am disappointed by the false claim that Christians have responsibility for this murder and I am saddened by the atrocities being visited on Christians in Orissa.
â€œI appeal to the governing authorities in India to intervene to save the lives of the many who are being victimized in the current crisis,â€ said Callam.
He added: â€œRespect for the principle of religious liberty and the sacredness of human life requires nothing less. I also appeal to all Baptists worldwide to pray Godâ€™s protection for our brothers and sisters in Orissa.â€
This is not the first time Christians in Orissa have experienced violent attacks. In December 2007, Hindu militants burned approximately 90 churches and 600 homes, killing an estimated 10 persons.
There are several Baptist conventions and unions in Orissa state that are member bodies of the BWA, with total membership in Orissa of nearly 500,000 baptized believers and approximately 3,500 churches.