Orissa's Christians Still Hiding in Forests

NEW DELHI – As cold weather grips Orissa state, Christian leaders in India have expressed their shock over the revelation that there are still Christians hiding in forests to escape violence.

Despite the presence of thousands of paramilitary forces in the north-eastern Indian state, hundreds of people, including many Christians and Hindus, are believed to be hiding in forests. They are fearful of a repercussion of the violence that swept through Orissa late last year after the murder of a radical Hindu leader.

"Hundreds of tribals haven't returned home after the riots," district collector Krishan Kumar told Indo-Asian News Service.

"The tribals had recently visited their villages but fled to the forest again. We are trying to reach them."

Christians in Orissa have been in a state of constant fear since the leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, was killed in mid-August.

Though Maoists leaders had publicly claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP blamed local Christians for the assassinations and thousands of Christian-owned homes and properties were consequently burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of believers were forced to hide out in the jungle or take shelter in refugee camps.

Although there have been no reports of violence in the last couple of months, there are reportedly more than 8,000 Christians still living in state-run relief camps, many reluctant to return home after the attacks.

"Some 15,000 Christians are living outside Kandhamal and are scared of returning home because many of the rioters are still at large and the police are not arresting them," reported Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians.

"During this time of winter, the fact that Christians are still hiding in forests is really shocking to us," added Bishop DK Sahu, general secretary of the National Council of Churches in India, according to New Delhi-based Christian Today. "We urge the government and church relief agencies to do everything possible to provide them with shelter, and protection."

Meanwhile, Hindu leader Ashok Sahu has reported that some 12,000 Hindus were hiding in forests for fear of police action against them after many residents in Kandhamal, the district at the heart of the violence, were charged with rioting.

According to official reports, 10,000 people have been named in 746 cases lodged during the August violence in Kandhamal. In the aftermath, more than 250 prayer halls were damaged, some 4,200 homes burned down, and more than a hundred were left dead.