Orissa Christians Appeal to State Regarding Religious Intolerance

Church authorities in the eastern Indian state of Orissa have decided to appeal to the central government to stop an anti-Christian campaign launched by local Hindu fundamentalists, police and media.

Orissa, often described as a stronghold of Hindu fundamentalism, is under the administration of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which until May of this year also controlled the Union government.

As reported by AsiaNews, groups such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council)--the BJP’s extremist religious wing--and the Hindu paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) are very active in the state. "They are well known for their anti-religious minority ideology," the news agency said.

On Tuesday, the Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported that some people believed to be supporters of the Hindu radical Bajrang Dal allegedly attacked four Christian priests in Gopinathpur village of Balasore district Sunday night.

While the priests allege that the group of people attacked them when they were at a prayer meeting inside a house, the Hindu extremists claim the priests were attempting to convert poor people to Christianity.

The issue of conversions “is a tool easily used by extremist groups who want to arouse communal passion,” said Thomas Thiruthalil, Bishop of Balasore.

Thiruthalil told AsiaNews that “Anti-social elements are taking advantage of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act to intimidate Tribals with the knowledge and consent of the local administration.”

While the Act is intended to prohibit forced conversion, sources say it is often used as a legal instrument to threaten Tribals most of whom are illiterate and easily swayed by fundamentalists and politicians.

Since what constitutes forced conversions or allurement is not specified, human rights groups, Christian religious leaders, and Dalits have expressed concern that authorities will use these laws selectively in the future to shut down educational, medical, and other social services provided by Christian groups to Dalits and "Tribals" (members of indigenous groups historically outside the caste system). However, the federal government can prevent states from taking action if there is a threat to national integrity and communal harmony, or if the law violates the basic spirit of the Constitution as written in its preamble.

Meanwhile, Hindu nationalist organizations frequently allege that Christian missionaries force Hindus, particularly those of lower castes, to convert to Christianity. At the same time, Christians claim that the efforts of Hindu groups to "reconvert" Christians to Hinduism are coercive.