Denouncing what they called a “master plan” to wipe out Christianity, the bishops of India’s troubled Orissa region have written a letter to state’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik concerning the persecution of Christians at the hands of Hindu extremists.
Conveying their “sincere thanks and appreciation” for his appointment with them, the bishops’ November 10 letter brings several concerns to his attention.
First, the bishops addressed the “exodus of Christians” from Kandhamal District. Noting the “considerable reduction” of refugees in relief camps, the bishops denied that those who leave the camps are returning to their homes.
“Most of them have migrated to relief camps in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Jhanla, Berhampur and also settled down in rented houses and in the homes of relations, friends, acquaintances etc. It is estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 Christians of Kandhamal district are living outside the district,” the bishops wrote.
People in the relief camps want to return to their villages, but fear being attacked on their return trip or in the villages themselves. The refugees also fear being forced to become Hindus “under pain of death or loss of properties,” said the bishops, who reported that returnees are being told to convert or leave the village, the district, or even the country.
The bishops’ letter reported the details of such forced conversions, saying Christians are compelled to “accept Hindu Samskaras under oath and under pain of divine punishment.” Christians are also being prevented from harvesting their fields unless they become Hindus, and one man was denied burial in his village because he was not a Hindu.
Further, many of the criminals involved in the anti-Christian attacks are still at large.
Naming several injustices against Christians, the bishops noted that Christians are still being chased away from their homes and villages, and the state government has not fulfilled its promises to allot land and money to those made homeless.
According to the bishops, criminals are still looting and burning Christian homes, churches, and institutions.
The bishops challenged characterizations of the anti-Christian attacks as an ethnic conflict:
“Hindu Fundamentalist groups have been trying to name the communal violence as an Ethnic Conflict between the Tribals and the Pano Christians. A cursory look at facts reveals that this conflict is a calculated and pre-planned master plan to wipe out Christianity from Kandhamal district, Orissa, in order to realize the hidden agenda of Sangh Parivar of establishing a Hindu Nation.”
This agenda has allegedly been furthered by concealing the fact that the attack victims were Christians.
The bishops expressed happiness that the Orissa government has decided to establish a Fast Track Court at Kandhamal to expedite the trials of cases related to the violence. In addition, the bishops requested that the judge of the court should be from a religion other than Hindu or Christian.
Continuing their requests, the bishops asked that the presence of national police in Kandhamal be extended until the parliamentary and assembly elections in Orissa are concluded, citing the State Police’s low numbers and inability to defend themselves.
Finally, the bishops asked that churches be built or repaired by the first week of December, 2008, to allow Christmas preparations to begin and spiritual traditions to be observed.
“This will also help confidence building among the congregations and bury the past quietly as they approach Christmas 2008,” their letter concluded.
The letter was signed by Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar; Bishop of Balasore Thomas Thiruthalil; and Bishop of Berhampur Sarat Nayak.