Hindu State: Purging Christians from Orissa

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BHUBANESHWAR, Orissa - In this remote eastern region of India, Hindu radicals are accused of a deliberate and systematic campaign to eradicate Christians from the land.

"Every single Christian denomination has been attacked, our schools, our colleges, our orphanages. Everything that Christians own --Christian homes, Christian institutions, Christian churches-- have been attacked," said Dr. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India. "The idea is to eliminate Christians from Orissa."

Click play for comments from James Standish of the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom, following CBN News Sr. Reporter George Thomas' report.

For more than a month now, Orissa has witnessed some of the worst persecution against Christians ever in India's history.

Violence began a month ago when a Hindu leader was murdered here. Hindu fanatic groups held Christians responsible for it and went on the rampage.

Some 4,000 Christian homes and 400 churches were destroyed. Events in Orissa triggered violence against Christians in a number of other states.

At the root of the conflict say Christian leaders are efforts by Hindu radicals to stop lower-caste Hindus known as Untouchables or Dalits from converting to Christianity.

"The Hindu mob wanted us to convert back to Hinduism," Juliam Nayak, an Orissa resident, remembered. "They told us that if we became a Hindu and rejected Christianity we could stay, otherwise they would burn our homes and we would have to leave the village."

Dalits makeup one-fifth of India's one billion plus population. They live on the margins of society, and are often considered by Hindus as less than human. Christian groups say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape the 3000 years of discrimination under the caste system.

"So when we talk about what is happening in the Dalit community, it's a freedom movement, and what happens in a freedom movement? They are seeking any one way which will make them free. Christianity offers them one way," human rights advocate, Dr. John Dayal, explained.

And the numbers have been especially dramatic in Orissa where Christians now makeup some 27 percent of the population.

"The Hindu gods did nothing for me, they didn't bring me any peace. They could not answer my problems but in Christianity I found true peace and freedom from the Hindu caste system," Kumar Naikd said. He is a Dalit convert.

But some Hindus have accused Christians of converting Dalits against their will.

"They use bribery and money to trick Dalits into becoming Christians. Conversions and Christian missionaries are a threat to India," Prakash Sharma said.

Sharma is one of key leaders in Bajrang Dal, an influential extremist Hindu group that's suspected of spearheading the attacks against Christians.

"My message to Christians in India is stop your conversions," he added. "The violence in Orissa is a reaction by Hindus to these conversions."

CBN News met survivors of the Orissa attacks who described Christians being forcibly converted to Hinduism under the threat of death.

"We saw 14 to 15 families being forced to drink cow urine as part of the conversion ceremony to purify their sins and then they had to sign a letter saying that they had become Hindus and would obey orders to attack Christians," Kandhamal resident, Vinod Nayak, said.

The violence has left more than 50,000 Christians displaced. Most of them are crammed into relief camps like this one. Thousands are said to be missing or hiding in jungles.

And the situation for these Christians isn't getting much easier. There are reports that the Hindu radicals have made threats against them saying that if they intend on coming back to their destroyed villages, they must renounce Christ.

"We will never do that. We may have lost everything but we will never turn our backs on Christ. I still have joy and I am thanking God despite my circumstances," said Nirmala Nayak, who survived a Hindu attack

The Indian government is facing growing international criticism for failing to stamp out the violence. The government has deployed several hundred more police to the region. Some are also calling on the government to ban groups like the Bajrang Dal and other extremist Hindu outfits that promote violence and religious intolerance.

More than a month after the attacks began, some Christians are slowly finding the courage to come out from hiding in the jungles and are walking to the nearest refugee camp--- uncertain about their future but hopeful they can one day go back home.

"Please pray for us that we go back to our destroyed homes," an Orissa survivor began. "Rebuild them and be a stronger witness for God among the non-Christians of our village."

*Original broadcast October 3, 2008.

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