Anti-Christian Violence in Orissa Threatens to Spread

Thousands of Christians in Orissa state have witnessed their homes, businesses and churches destroyed and torched over the past few weeks, but the violence that has refused to subside may soon spread to other parts of India, warned a persecution watchdog group.

Hindu extremists, who are behind the violence in Orissa, may spread their fierce anti-Christian sentiment throughout India ahead of the country's general election, fears U.K.-based Barnabas Fund.

In the northern state of Uttarakhand, Hindu activists reportedly attacked a group of Indian missionaries in early August, the ministry pointed out.

Then on Aug. 20 in the southern state of Karnataka, Hindu radicals were said to beat up an evangelists.

And earlier this month, a group of Hindus abducted four young children who were being escorted to a Christian orphanage and beat up the two staff from the sponsoring organization.

Also, an 86-year-old church in central India was burned down on Sept. 7.

Gospel for Asia, a mission group working in India and other south Asia countries, said Hindu mobs raided churches and prayer centers in Karnataka state, attacking Christians during worship services on Sunday.

The extremists then destroyed church buildings and their properties. In total, at least 11 churches were destroyed in the southern state, including at least one led by Gospel for Asia missionaries.

"India is in a scary situation," said GFA president K.P. Yohannan, in a statement Monday. "While violence continues in Orissa, on India's east coast, anti-Christian extremists have unleashed another wave of attacks on Christians in Karnataka, a state on India's west coast.

"At the same time, churches are under attack in Jharkhand and other states, and Muslim extremists have set off bombs in Delhi."

Violence broke out in the remote eastern state of Orissa after a Hindu political leader, known for his anti-Christian conversion campaigns, was murdered. Police had initially blamed Maoist rebels for the murder, and the rebels themselves have claimed responsibility.

But Hindu radicals refuse to believe the rebels are behind the attack and continue to blame Christians for the death of their leader. While relations between the small Christian population and Hindus have been generally peaceful, Orissa has been plagued by religious tensions between Christian missionaries and hard-line Hindu groups who claim the Christians are forcing or bribing people to convert, as reported by The Associated Press.

"The shocking outbreak of violence against Christians in Orissa draws our attention to the persecution faced by many Indian Christians," said Dr. Patrick Sookhdeo, international director of Barnabas Fund. "There is a grave danger that this will intensify in various places as the national elections approach.

"We pray that Christ will give peace and strength to believers throughout the country and enable them to respond to hostility with love and forgiveness."

Barnabas Fund has been providing aid to Christians in Orissa since the violent campaign against believers last Christmas. The ministry says it fears hard-line groups, some linked to pro-Hindu political parties, will use the May 2009 election to mobilize support.

The anti-Christian attacks are said to be the worst in the 60 years of India's independence. Since the violence erupted some three weeks ago, the death toll has risen to 25.