- (Photo: AP Images / The Indian Express, Partha Paul)
At least 12 people are believed to have been killed and thousands forced to flee from their homes amid a campaign of violence being waged against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa.
Hindu mobs have gone on the rampage across Kandhamal district in retaliation for the murder of a Hindu leader on Saturday. Although the government believes the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati was perpetrated by Maoists, Hindus claim that Christians murdered him because of his opposition to conversions.
Gospel for Asia said that as many as 20 of its related churches had been destroyed and hundreds of homes belonging to Christians had been burned down.
Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannan said that at least 12 members of Gospel for Asia-related churches had been killed in the violence, although the exact death toll remains unconfirmed.
He called the violence “unprecedented” in his 30 years of ministry in south Asia.
"I have never seen persecution so bad in my life and I have seen a lot of opposition to the Gospel over the years,” said Yohannan.
Around 3,000 people, mainly Christians, have sought shelter in government refugee camps or in surrounding forests.
"The Christians in Orissa have fled for their lives into the forests and some have been in hiding for three days without food or water,” said Yohannan. "Several of our pastors are in the forest along with their church people, and one said that he could have escaped, but would rather die with his people than leave them."
Yohannan said he had received reports stating that a number of Christian girls have been raped by the Hindu mobs. He appealed to Christians to pray for the Gospel for Asia Bible college in Orissa, which has 90 female students and is currently being guarded by police.
The Rev. Dr. Richard Howell of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said Christians were “saddened” by the Indian Government’s failure to halt the attacks.
He said he had received reports of thousands of extremists being brought in from other states to strengthen the campaign of violence.
“Their agenda is to wipe out Christians and Christianity from India starting from Orissa,” said Dr Howell.
Orissa has a long history of persecution against Christians. The current outbreak of violence follows a wave of attacks on Christians by Hindu radicals in Orissa last Christmas.
Despite the attacks, more people had put their faith in Christ in Orissa than in any other state in India in the past year, Yohannan said.
"So it is no surprise that opposition is increasing,” he added.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert, said that urgent protection for the victims of the violence was "still desperately needed."
"We are witnessing one of the worst outbreaks of communal violence ever seen in post-Independence India, and we call on the UK Foreign Secretary, US Secretary of State, French Foreign Minister and European Commissioner for External Relations to respond positively to these requests for expressions of concern," she said.
On Friday, nearly 50 000 schools, colleges and educational institutions run by Christian organizations shut down in protest of the violence, according to All India Christian Council.
"Children studying in the institutions will understand that it is very important to respect all religions and such criminal acts should not be condoned," said Sam Paul, spokesperson for the Council.