NEW DELHI (UCAN) — Prime Minster Manmohan Singh has directed officials to help Christians in Orissa, where Church people say continuing anti-Christian violence has killed at least 19 people.
The federal government has been in touch with the government of the eastern Indian state, “and every effort would be made to restore normalcy,” according to a government press statement on Aug. 28.
It said Singh spoke with Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and “requested him to take immediate steps” to restore peace in the state. The prime minister also advised Patnaik to provide “immediate relief to the affected people, particularly children,” the statement added.
Continued violence in Orissa, which started on Aug. 24, has killed at least 22 people, Chandrakant Nayak told UCA News. Nayak directs Love India, an NGO, in the state’s Kandhamal district, hardest hit by the violence.
A Church official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed 19 deaths, but the toll will be higher, he said, as “the situation is very grim in the interior villages (where) we have not much information.” The priest is based in the state capital of Bhubaneswar, 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.
The violence began after the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu religious leader, and five of his associates on Aug. 23 in Kandhamal district. Maoists reportedly claimed responsibility for the killings, but Hindu radicals allege gunmen hired by Christians murdered their spiritual leader, a charge all Christian groups have denied. The 85-year Hindu leader, based in Kandhamal district, had for several decades opposed conversions to Christianity
On Aug. 28, a seven-member ecumenical delegation met the prime minister in New Delhi to update him on the situation in Orissa.
Sushma Ramaswami of the Church of North India, a Protestant union, told UCA News the prime minister described the Orissa violence as a “shame” on the whole nation.
Their memorandum to Singh, released later to the media, said senior police officers in Orissa have expressed their inability to control the situation because the government has not deputed a “sufficient number of policemen.”
It charged fundamentalist groups want to drive Christians out of the region, as shown from the slogans they raise against Christians. Most Christian priests, pastors and Religious men and women now hide in the forests to save their lives. However, “the fundamentalists are in search of their hide-outs,” the memorandum warned.
The violence has forced some 60,000 Christians to take refuge in forests, it said. Despite government assurances of protection, it added, the fundamentalists move about with weapons threatening Christians.
The memorandum signers want the Central Bureau of Investigation, the country’s premier investigating agency, to investigate Swami Saraswati’s murder. Meanwhile, they want the army deployed to quell the violence.
The Christian leaders also sought compensation for the families of the deceased and injured, besides for damage to churches, institutions and other establishments destroyed in the violence.
The memorandum demands culprits “be severely dealt with” and officials who neglect their duties “be taken to task.” It also asks for a new law to protect religious minorities from atrocities.
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, another delegation member, told UCA News on Aug. 28: “Christians hiding in the forest don’t have anything to eat. Yesterday evening one priest called me and said they were hiding in the jungle for the past three days. The attackers are sparing no one.”
The archbishop added: “This is a collapse of the total police force. Sometimes they (policemen) don’t even have a lathi (baton) to defend themselves. The state administration is not doing anything to restore peace.”