“FLEE, convert, or die.” That is the stark choice facing persecuted Christians in the north-eastern Indian state of Orissa, said the National Secretary of the All India Christian Council, Dr Sam Paul, who was visiting the UK last week.
Dr Paul has recently returned from a visit to Orissa, where he heard first-hand accounts from victims of violence.
The anti-Christian attacks began after the killing of a Hindu swami in August which was blamed on Christians (News, 31 October; Comment, 10 October).
Dr Paul said militant extremist Hindu groups viewed India as a Hindu nation, and saw other religious minorities as a threat to their Hindu identity. Similar attacks had taken place before, he said, against Sikhs in 1984, and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002.
He said that this was the second wave of anti-Christian violence in Orissa, and that thousands of Christians had fled their homes and were now living in relief camps.
“Around 50,000 Christians have been displaced in Orissa, 5000 homes destroyed, and 60 people have been killed in this second spate of violence, and 200 people are unaccounted for. It’s almost like an ethnic or religious cleansing: they have chased out all the Christians from 350 villages, and destroyed 117 churches.”
Dr Paul fears that if Christians return to their homes, they will face continued persecution. The authorities, he said, were not providing sufficient protection. “It’s absolutely not safe for people to return to their homes in Orissa. The area looks like a war zone, but it’s not a war of two communities: it’s the victimisation of a minority community by the majority community.
“That atmosphere has to be changed drastically, and the government needs to take full charge. A nun was gang-raped in August, and she has said publicly that the police watched the men who committed this crime. People do not trust the Orissa police.”
Dr Paul is calling for an inquiry by the government’s Central Bureau of Investigation into the situation, and has criticised the Prime Minister of India, Dr Manmohan Singh, for not visiting Orissa.
“The government is trying to get people to go back to their homes, but some people have gone back and been killed. The normalcy the government is claiming has not returned. Some Christians are being forced to “re-convert”, even though they were never Hindus but are third- or fourth-generation Christians.
“There has been serial intimidation and humiliation of Christians: one family was asked to tear up their Bible and urinate on it; others were forced to drink cow urine.
“The situation is much more serious than the West has heard. There must be more intervention, or the situation will deteriorate again and again, as they face the choice ‘flee, convert or die’.”
Dr Paul urged the Indian government to implement the recommendations of the National Commission for Minorities, which has called for the banning of the militant Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) group, which he says is responsible for much of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa.
Dr Paul was in London to address Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s annual conference at the weekend.
The Bishop of Repton, the Rt Revd Humphrey Southern, also met victims of the Orissa violence during the recent synod of the Church of North India in Pathankot, in the Punjab region. There is an ecumenical link between the churches of Derby and the Church of North India.
In an interview after he returned from India, Bishop Southern spoke of a presentation given by two delegates at the synod. “One of them had a huge, deep open wound running from below his right ear to his Adam’s apple, where someone had tried to decapitate him.
“He had been forced to flee to the forest. His story was very arresting, and brought home the immediacy of the situation. There was a real sense of their agony, and that the Christians there feel powerless. There is a fear that this will presage a spreading of communal violence in India between religious groups, particularly against Christians.”
Orissa discussed in Lords. The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, raised the issue of Orissa in the House of Lords, urging the government in India to prosecute those responsible for the anti-Christian attacks.
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd Graham Dow, said that the anti-conversion laws in seven Indian states have led to threats of imprisonment and fines for clerics who baptise members of the Dalit community.