Christians defiant in India’s troubled Kandhamal

By on March 23, 2009

Tiangia, IndiaChristians in India’s troubled Kandhamal district of eastern Orissa say they remain firm in their faith despite being battered by waves of violence in 2008 that displaced 50 000 of them and left 75 dead.”The fear is there, but we trust in God,” said the Rev. Subendra Pradhan, one of three people ordained as full-time pastors at an evangelistic convention organized at the end of February in remote Sunamaha by the Church of North India. Another 12 candidates were ordained as honorary pastors.”I am not worried about what has happened. I decided to be a pastor long ago and there is no question of not going back,” said Pradhan.More than 5,000 Christians attended the convention, hundreds of them walking more than 10 km to the venue that was accessible only via a mud road.”We worked for days to prepare this,” said Saroj Nayak, pointing to a huge shed made of wooden planks and wild leaves to provide shade to the gathering taking place in scorching sun at 40 C.Still, 50 volunteers guarded the venue holding long wooden rods. “Our people are very much afraid. So we are holding these to give them a sense of protection,” Saroj told Ecumenical News International. The violence in Orissa broke out following the killing of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in August 2008. A Maoist leader is reported to have claimed responsibility for the killing but some Hindu groups have said it was a Christian conspiracy, as the 85-year-old slain monk had been campaigning against conversions to Christianity in Kandhamal, where he was based. The violence displaced almost half the district’s 100,000 Christians. More then 5,000 of their homes, as well as 200 churches and Christian institutions, were looted and destroyed. Bishop Bijay Kumar Nayak, who conducted the ordinations, said he was surprised by the overwhelming response of Christians who had made their way to the convention in the safer Daringabadi region where Christians are a majority.Still, the fear and helplessness that many Christians feel was more evident at Gunjibadi, near Nuagam, about 70 km away from Sunamaha.Here, more than a dozen Baptist families had been removed from a refugee camp and left near their burned-out houses by government officials, apparently eager to show that the refugees have gone back to the villages and that the relief camps have been shut down.”We do not have even a tent, and have to sleep in the open,” Jehan Digal told ENI, pointing to the charred roof of his house near the damaged village Baptist church.Life remains more comfortable for 300 Christian families that have been moved to a new refugee camp at Tiangia, close to their villages. It was opened in early February, with food supplied by the government and federal soldiers guarding the camp.”But, the question is, when can we go back?” said Goliath Digal, recounting how Christians had accompanied government officials escorted by police to examine damage to their houses in Bollingia village near Tiangia.The local Hindus quietly watched as the Christians helped the officials identify and assess damage to their houses. As soon as the officials left in their vehicles, the Hindus took out weapons and chased the Christians out shouting, “You can come back here only as Hindus”, said Goliath Digal.Other refugees recounted stories of being prevented from entering their villages and forced to put up sheds of torn plastic sheets as protection against the elements.However, Subhash Chauhan, a senior leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) that has been accused of fomenting the anti-Christian violence, denied Christians had been threatened. “Christians are carrying out this propaganda to discredit us,” Chauhan told ENI. When asked about specific incidents of threats of violence, he said, “We do not support such activities.”

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