An Asian Baptist leader called on Baptists worldwide to pray for peace and normalcy to be restored in India’s Orissa state and that local and national governments there will stand by democratic principles of freedom of religion.
Bonny Resu, general secretary of the Asia Pacific Baptist Federation, said material aid to an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 Christians under attack from Hindu mobs for a week is best mobilized locally in India, because help from foreign sources might only inflame communal tensions fueling the violence.
The same anti-Christian foment that in 1999 prompted the burning deaths of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons as they slept in his station wagon in Orissa is an embarrassment to India’s secular government.
On Monday Prime Minister Manmohan Singh told Staines’ widow that New Delhi will “take all necessary steps to safeguard the fundamental rights and liberties of all sections of our society and protect their religious freedoms as enshrined in the constitution” and “not tolerate any efforts aimed at disturbing the communal harmony or secular fabric of our country.”
Christian and human-rights groups including Human Rights Watch, however, accuse the government of looking the other way while extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have carried out a sometimes-violent anti-Christian campaign for years.
Orissa is predominantly Hindu, with a Christian minority of about 900,000 out of a population of 36 million, but thousands of Hindus have converted to Christianity in recent years. Hindu extremists accuse Christian groups of forcing conversions in a desire to change India from a Hindu to a Christian nation. They also oppose adding a predominantly Christian tribe to a list of minorities eligible for affirmative-action programs for education and government jobs.
Resu said there are many Baptists in the state of Orissa–more than 1,000 local churches, especially in rural areas. “The people affected are the poorest of the poor in India and as such are voiceless,” he said in an e-mail to EthicsDaily.com. “Their only crime is that they have chosen to believe in Christ according to their conscience.”
The current crisis reportedly began Dec. 24, when Hindu fundamentalists tried to stop Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Brahmani village from pitching a tent for a Christmas celebration. Words were exchanged, and the Hindu mob attacked Christians with sticks, knives and guns. Christians ran for their lives, and extremists started looting and destroying Christian shops.
About the same time, the leader of a Hindu group that has led opposition to Christian conversions was attacked by unknown assailants that the extremists said were Christians. On Christmas Day a larger crowd came back to destroy Christian churches and homes. Christian leaders said 70 churches and 600 homes were torched. Christmas services were canceled. Five deaths were confirmed, though observers expect the final death toll to be higher.
Pastors, priests and nuns fled to forests, without food or shelter, while Hindu mobs tried to seek out their hiding places. Those unable to get away were forced to convert to Hinduism and had their heads forcibly shaved. State police allegedly sided with perpetrators and did little to stop the attacks.
A delegation of Christian leaders called for India’s Central Bureau of Investigation to order a probe of police response and for compensation for injured and deceased family members and lost buildings.
India’s prime minister promised to restore order. Orissa’s government on Monday announced compensation to the next of kin of those killed in communal violence. Some order was restored by Sunday, as Christians worshipped peacefully amid tight security.
Earlier the government was criticized for pronouncing prematurely that things were returning to normal while not allowing three fact-finding teams–one Christian and two from political parties–to enter the affected area.
Swarupananda Patra, an Orissa Baptist church leader, called on leaders of the Baptist World Alliance to build international awareness and urge the United Nations to pressure the government of India to curb terror and restore human rights.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.