Indian Christians flee as persecution continues and secular media remains silent
News and relief agencies report some 30,000–70,000 Christians have fled their homes in Orissa, India, due to religious persecution, which erupted in August. Christian refugees are living in makeshift shelters in the jungle, in relief camps, or have fled to neighbouring states. Women have been gang-raped, pastors have been killed, and thousands have been wounded by gunfire, burning buildings, or the rigours of their flight – and almost nothing is being done.
The Indian federal government seems reluctant to act, while the state government has been accused of tacitly sanctioning the conflict. India’s Supreme Court charged the local police with doing little to restrain the violence against the religious minority group suffering under extremist Hindus. The remoteness of the region adds a degree of difficulty for official and nongovernmental response.
Some Christians claim upcoming parliamentary elections are responsible for the government’s reticence to intervene in the religious conflict in the majority Hindu country. India’s largest opposition party, BJP, is connected with the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), whose stated mission is to make Orissa “a poster state for Hindutva (Hinduness).”
The Hindu faith is tolerant of many gods and abhors violence against women. Thus, persecution of Christians in Orissa state is not the result of mainline Hindu faith.
The current focused aggression against Christians may be a reaction against the rate of growth; the church is expanding by as much as 20 percent in some districts in Orissa, with dozens of baptisms every year, according to a Canadian MB pastor who makes annual visits to India. Christians make an easy target for extremists bent on violence because historically they have not retaliated with escalated violence, instead following the teachings of Jesus to turn the other cheek.
Sectarian violence is not new to Orissa. The state has known undercurrents of violence for generations, compounded by the paradox of the state’s enormous mineral riches and impoverished population. Another headline-grabbing attack on Christians was the burning alive of Australian medical missionary Graham Staines and his two sons in 1999.
Shortly after the largest wave of violence in Orissa last fall had calmed, terrorist acts against foreigners in Mumbai claimed the world’s attention with a constant stream of news reports, contrasting starkly with the international media’s relative silence on the atrocities in Orissa.
The Canadian pastor, making his eighth-annual trip to India to teach and encourage pastors, stopped in the region to meet with Christians in Orissa. Due to the danger, he was only able to meet with a few pastors in a very small, low-key meeting. Teachers from Center Amish Mennonite Church in Hutchinson, Kan., connected via cellphone to offer prayers, encouragement, and to sing songs for the Indian pastors.
“Why is there no outcry about what’s happening?” asks the pastor. These are not only Christians but fellow Anabaptist believers: Brethren in Christ (BIC) and Amish Mennonites, he says. Among the thousands of houses and churches burned to the ground was a BIC girls hostel.
“Is it okay that we all shout loud and long [over disasters such as the 2004 tsunami] but when it’s Christians, we look the other way? Are we following CNN cameras, just like the rest of the world?”
The Mennonite churches in India are “afraid; they are sitting ducks,” he says. “They can’t provide relief because you have to go through the authorities to get it,” and the authorities are not adequately addressing the violence.
“India is trying to be an important player in the world, part of the G20 nations. The economic boom has given India status,” he says. “As Canadians, we have the opportunity to write to our MPs, to the Canadian government, to ask that they put pressure on India to evaluate its human rights record in this matter.”
Returning home to safety and the beginnings of the Christmas holidays, the MB pastor thought of the Christians in Orissa. Hindu extremists called for a state-wide forced shut-down on all sectors of society on December 25, offering a pretext for violence against anyone publicly celebrating the holiday.
“What about us, if all our Christian expression expression was banned, would Christ still be born in our hearts? Would we still speak the truth?”