Dozens Dead in Anti-Christian Violence

Ad Feedback -- Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday condemned anti-Christian violence in India, where more than 20 people have been killed in three days of violence as Christians clashed with Hindu mobs attacking churches, shops and homes.

During his weekly audience at the Vatican, Benedict said he was "profoundly saddened" by news of the violence against Christian communities in eastern India.

"I firmly condemn any attack on human life," Benedict told a crowd of faithful and pilgrims. "I express spiritual closeness and solidarity to the brothers and sisters in faith who are being so harshly tested."

The pope also called "deplorable" the killing of a Hindu leader. Hardline Hindus have blamed that death on Christian militants, setting off the latest violence in India's Orissa state.

Three more deaths were reported today in the eastern state of Orissa, where a spate of anti-Christian violence began after suspected Maoists murdered Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his disciples on Saturday.

The number of people confirmed dead has risen to 21 on the fourth day of ongoing violence in Kandhamal district and other parts of Orissa. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that more than 114 anti-Christian attacks have taken place in various parts of the state.

"The worst hit are the people in Kandhamal district, where more than 400 churches, more than 500 houses and many Christian institutions have been demolished," GCIC President Dr. Sajan K. George said in a memorandum to the state governor. "The people have fled to jungles for safety."

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told Compass that Christians in Orissa were living in fear and anxiety.

"The law enforcing agencies have not been able to contain the violent elements that are still at large," he said. "The violent mobs are destroying churches, orphanages, hostels of children, convents of religious women and houses of Christian families. There appears a sense of helplessness among the Christian community that has borne the brunt of the communal frenzy created by some fundamentalist organizations."

Indo-Asian News Service reported that three more bodies were recovered today. One body was discovered from Phiringia area and another from Raikia in Kandhamal.

"One of them had died on Monday and the other on Tuesday - both died after mobs attacked them," Kandhamal district collector Kishan Kumar told IANS. "A third person was rescued in a critical condition, but died on Tuesday night in the hospital."

The state administration, however, claimed far fewer casualties. "Only seven bodies have been recovered thus far," Deputy Inspector General of Police R.P. Koche told Compass.

'Shoot-at-Sight' Orders Mobs were burning Christian houses in Gadavisa village, around three kilometers from Udayagiri in Kandhamal, a local source requesting anonymity told Compass at press time. IANS reported that mobs defied curfew, blocked roads and attacked churches in Kandhamal even after police issued shoot-at-sight orders to control the situation, as trouble spread to other areas with incidents of violence reported in Sundergarh, Gajapati and Rayaagada districts. "We have given orders to shoot-at-sight anybody defying curfew and indulging in violence," Revenue Divisional Commissioner Satyabrata Sahu told IANS.

The news agency also said that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik informed the state assembly today that different police stations had registered a total of at least 70 cases and arrested 54 people in connection with attacks. According to The Hindu newspaper, Patnaik claimed that violence was under control. The Rt. Rev. Sunil K. Singh, bishop of the Church of North India, told Compass, "The situation in Orissa is far too worrisome and delicate. There has been a total break down of law and order resulting from barbaric communal attacks by anti Christian elements on innocent and peace loving Christians, their priests, nuns, religious workers, their churches and organizations."

The National Commission for Minorities called for "immediate" intervention of the federal government on the "outrageous communal violence in Orissa."

"Reports of violence against a minority community are outrageous," IANS quoted NCM Chairperson Mohammad Shafi Qureshi as saying. "Efforts must be made to rein in violence, and the must intervene effectively to restore peace in the state."

The panel also sought a comprehensive report from the Orissa government over incidents of violence and arson that have claimed lives and damaged or destroyed churches and properties.

"We will also send our own delegation to the state to take stock of ground realities," Qureshi said.

According to a report by Christian Legal Association, the Orissa High Court today passed an order asking the state government to deploy army personnel to ensure that victims are given compensation and are properly rehabilitated.

The court order came in response to a public interest litigation filed by attorney Collin Gonsalves of the Human Rights Law Network, a non-profit organization, on behalf of local Christians.

No-Confidence Motion In view of the uncontrolled violence, the state legislative assembly yesterday accepted a no-confidence motion by the opposition Congress Party against the ruling coalition of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party and the Biju Janata Dal party, a regional party that claims to be secular.

Discussion on the no-confidence motion is expected to be held on Friday , reported NDTV 24X7 news channel.

About 30 armed men with sophisticated rifles and AK-47s attacked Saraswati's ashram in the Jalespata area in Kandhamal's Tumudiband Block on Saturday. A warning letter found at the Saraswati religious center and the use of expensive arms suggested Maoists were behind the attack, and police have reportedly said the Maoist rebels are responsible for the murders of the Hindu leaders.

Violence erupted the next day when Hindutva extremists paraded the body of Saraswati throughout nearby villages, whipping up anger and mobilizing crowds against Christians, in uncontested defiance of a Kandhamal district administration prohibition against the gathering of four or more people.

Among the slogans shouted was, "Kill Christians and destroy their institutions."

Saraswati allegedly incited the attacks on Christians and their property in Kandhamal last Christmas season. The violence lasted for more than a week beginning December 24, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches.

The 2007 attacks were allegedly carried out mainly by Vishwa Hindu Parishad extremists under the pretext of avenging an alleged attack on Saraswati by local Christians. Hundreds of Christians were displaced by the violence in Kandhamal, and they are still in various relief camps set up by the state government.

Christians make up 2.4 percent of Orissa's population, or 897,861 of the 36.7 million people.

Saturday night, Swami Laxamanananda Saraswati, a top leader of the VHP , was killed in an attack by 20 men suspected of being Maoist rebels.

The Maoists had earlier warned the swami to leave the area. The attack, which included gunfire and a hand grenade, also killed four other people.

The swami was a leading opponent of Christian work in India and his followers in the ultra-fundamentalist VHP have used his murder to incite hundreds of their followers to go on a rampage across several districts in Orissa state, according the missionary organization Gospel for Asia.

GFA, which has a U.S. office in Carrollton, Texas, supports indigenous missionaries, church planters, and Christian social ministries throughout India.

The ministry reports at least six Christians who attended GFA-related churches have been killed, more than 15 GFA-related church buildings destroyed and at least 110 church members' homes burned to the ground.

GFA reports other Christian groups have also suffered, with many deaths reported and attacks on ministers and missionaries being widespread, including reports of Catholic nuns being gang raped and murdered by the extremists.

"We are also deeply shocked and anguished to hear of the atrocities and violence meted out to the innocent Christians and churches in Orissa as a backlash of the sorrowful event," said Dr. K.P. Yohannan, founder and president of Gospel for Asia. "We are praying for an immediate halt to the violence."

Dozens of pastors and their families have been attacked by roving mobs, and many have fled with their congregations into the surrounding forests. Some children and their parents have been in hiding, without food or water, since the rioting began on Sunday.

One GFA Bible college is under police protection, while a GFA Bridge of Hope children's center was closed when a mob threatened to attack. They threatened to kidnap one of the workers, so the staff and 120 children left the area. It is not known what has happened to the center property.

"What is most disturbing is that these attacks seem to be well organized and orchestrated," Dr. Yohannan said. "We have reports that the VHP have actually held strategy meetings in order to plan and coordinate this campaign of violence against peaceful Christian families and churches."

Pamphlets have been printed and widely distributed accusing the Christians of the swami's murder, even though most authorities indicate it was most likely Maoist rebels who were responsible.

"We thank God that the government officials are protecting our Bible college campus and trying to protect our people," K.P. added. "That is a true blessing." But as the violence has increased, many fear the government's actions are not enough.

Reports note that the mobs are using firebombs to attack homes and churches, and there is little evidence of police or other government intervention.

There are more than 295 GFA-related churches in Orissa. GFA has dozens of missionaries in the state, and the people have been very receptive to the message of Christ's love for them.

"But the fundamentalist groups have always opposed us," noted one GFA worker, "and now there is great tension prevailing, and Christians are running away for their lives."

"My heart goes out to the missionaries and believers," Dr. Yohannan said. "We must pray with all earnestness for the suffering church in Orissa at this time."

Pope Benedict urged religious leaders and local authorities to "work together to re-establish between the members of the various communities the peaceful coexistence and the harmony that have always marked Indian society."

The violence began as Hindu hard-liners set ablaze a Christian orphanage early Monday, killing a woman who worked as a lay teacher and seriously injuring a priest.

Four people were killed later that day, including two burned alive when rioters set fire to thatched huts.

Six more people were killed Tuesday and Wednesday in villages across the state, despite a curfew imposed by police, authorities said. One was doused with kerosene and burned to death by a mob, another died when protesters set fire to a house, while four were killed in an exchange of gunfire between the rival groups.

It is not clear if the latest dead were Christians or Hindus. Security forces on Wednesday were ordered to shoot on sight protesters defying the curfew.

On Tuesday the Holy See condemned the orphanage attack, and a top Vatican official called it "a sin against God and humanity."

In an interview published in Italy's Corriere della Sera daily, Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the head of the Vatican's council for inter-religious dialogue, said there was "no possible justification" for the assault.

Hinduism is the main religion in India, and relations with the country's religious minorities - such as Christians, who account for 2.5 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people, and Muslims, who make up 14 percent - are usually peaceful.

However, Hindu nationalists often accuse Christian missionaries of luring poor people away from India's largest faith through bribes or coercion - a charge churches have denied. The issue of conversions has sparked violence by hard-line Hindus throughout India's history.

Sources: The Associated Press, Gospel for Asia, Compass Direct News Service.

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