.- As India conducts its month-long national elections, a leading Indian bishop has accused Hindu nationalists of threatening Orissa state voters with violence and pursuing a “secret agenda” to flush Christians out of the region.
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, speaking in an interview with the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), claimed that leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have made death threats against people unwilling to vote for them. He said the BJP was determined to eliminate Christianity from Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where the vast majority of the state’s churchgoers live.
Catholic priests in Orissa report that the BJP has warned Christians in Kandhamal district that if they voted for other candidates, the party would bully them into leaving the area, ACN says.
Nearly 30,000 people fled the district in 2007 and 2008 during anti-Christian attacks on nearly 300 villages in Kandhamal. Eighty people, including a Catholic priest, were killed. About 270 churches and chapels were desecrated while 6,000 homes were destroyed.
Archbishop Cheenath told ACN that people in relief camps in Kandhamal were generally able to vote. However, he said “several thousands” who fled the district during the violence were denied the vote because they were prevented from registering.
“The BJP party officials have threatened to attack the Christians and chase them away. The threats were very serious and there has been a great fear among the people,” the archbishop said, speaking from Bangalore.
“The problem for the people was made worse because the authorities in Orissa took no tangible steps to prevent such things from happening.”
“The secret agenda of the [BJP politicians] is to remove the Christians from Kandhamal,” Archbishop Cheenath said. “It was clear that this was what they wanted to do before the elections and if they win again there is no doubt that they will continue in that way.”
A Catholic priest in Kandhamal on election day reported that trees had been felled to block access to villages in order to prevent people from voting. The same tactic was used during the anti-Christian violence.
The priest said there was hardly any movement of the people.
“My colleagues and I were scared... I reached the polling booth of my village but after only two hours [of voting] the booth was literally empty. We were the first ones to cast our votes.”
The priest told ACN it was important to remember that thousands of people are still living outside the district and had not exercised their vote.
“Are these not citizens?” he asked.
The priest also alleged that four Hindus gang-raped a girl after learning that her uncle had refused to abandon his Christian faith.
In the run-up to the elections, BJP Kandhamal candidate Ashok Sahu was arrested for making an anti-Christian speech in the village of Raikia. He has since been released.
According to ACN, Sahu was closely linked to Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the militant anti-Christian Hindu leader whose murder last August, allegedly by Maoists, sparked widespread violence against churchgoers.