Hindu extremist attacks on Christians in India have entered their third month amidst pleas to Indian authorities to end the violence.
Pope Benedict Oct. 26 added his voice to those calling for new efforts at religious harmony. He also called on Indian government and religious leaders to help end acts of "cruel violence" and intolerance and to restore the rule of law so that "honest and legal citizens may know they can count on adequate protection from the state."
The violence first erupted on Aug. 24, the day after an 85-year-old Hindu leader, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, and four associates were gunned down in Kandhamal district of the state of Orissa in Eastern India. Saraswati had campaigned against Christian missioners for decades.
Hindu extremists immediately blamed Christians for the murders, even though a Maoist group repeatedly claimed responsibility for killings.
Newspapers reported that several Hindu monks at a memorial service for the slain Hindu leader Sept. 6 made vows to eradicate Christians from Kandhamal district. The monks reportedly described the murder as an attack on Hinduism and called for Hindus to counter a move to “make India a Christian nation.”
Indian Christian groups, meanwhile, dismissed the allegations of the murder as baseless and aimed at inciting sectarian violence that could polarize voters ahead of the country's next general election, due in early 2009.
Hindu mobs during the past eight weeks have torched an estimated 4,000 homes as well as churches, convents, and other church institutions, attacking, raping and killing Christians. An estimated 50,000 have fled to forests in rural provinces. At least two dozen people have been reported killed in Kandhamal district alone. Some who fled are living in a dozen relief camps set up by the government.
Meanwhile, local observers say the government’s response to the violence has been woefully inadequate and Christians remain at the mercy of the mobs.
Father John Fernandes, professor of Christian Studies at Mangalore University in Karnataka, told UCA New service that the anti-Christian incidents are part of "planned strategies" to garner votes for the 2009 election. "In terms of votes Christians are insignificant, but for uniting Hindus, the hate campaign is significant for them," the priest was quoted as saying last month.
He added he regretted that a polarizing "success" in one place motivates Hindu radicals to test the strategy in other areas.
Meanwhile, Christians have held rallies across India to protest the violence. In the port city of Mangalore in Western India, Christians, Hindus and Muslims organized a hunger strike and formed a human chain.
This week a series of letters penned by Indian women religious who asked that their names be withheld were making a plea to Catholics and others worldwide to pressure Indian authorities to restore law and order in India and particularly in the state of Orissa where sporadic violence continues this week.
“I write with grave concern over the anti-Christian violence that began in August in Orissa and has spread into Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other parts of the country,” one Indian religious leader wrote. “I am aware that in Orissa alone over 50,000 people are homeless. Christians are hiding in forests, live in government refugee camps, and private camps. Thousands of homes, churches, health centers, hostels and schools have been destroyed.”
She added ominously: “People have lost faith in the state government … Individuals are helpless and caught in this situation that has yet to process and charge individuals responsible. Individuals feel that they are victims of mob violence and a systemic hate campaign.”
Indian women religious encourage people to write Indian authorities to ask them to intervene and end the violence.
They also have said the cost of rebuilding the Catholic facilities throughout India will run into the millions of dollars and asked that contributions for the effort be sent to Catholic Relief Services.
On Oct. 24 at the Jesuit-managed Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, a 28-year-old nun and rape victim, her face masked, told her story to the press. She was flanked by another nun and a female lawyer. Fighting back tears while reading a four-page handwritten statement, she recounted how Hindu fanatics attacked her.
She said she has no faith in the Orissa police, whom she alleged refused to help her, but aided her attackers.
India is more than 80 per cent Hindu, but its 1.1 billion people include all of the world's major religions, a caste system, and divides of wealth and poverty.
The Kandhamal is a place cut off by poverty and illiteracy, where electricity is unknown, and pay for day laborers runs at about a half a dollar. It has long been a battleground over Christian missionary work among low-caste Hindus and the indigenous people known in India as "tribals." While Christians account for just 2.5 per cent of India, their population in Kandhamal runs nearly 20 per cent.
Fox is NCR editor.