India Gov't Delivers First Conviction for Orissa Violence

Nearly a year after the outbreak of anti-Christian violence in Orissa, India, the state government finally handed out its first conviction.

A court in Phulbani, Kandhamal district, Orissa state on Tuesday found Chakradhar Mallick guilty of setting fire to the house of a local Christian in Kandhamal, authorities said Wednesday. He was accused of leading and inciting a Hindu group to burn homes and attack Christians.

Mallick was sentenced to four years in prison and given a fine of 4,000 rupees (USD $83).

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in Orissa said the conviction will help "people to have more confidence in the justice system and government," according to Union of Catholic Asian News.

"We are happy that at least one person has received justice," said Cheenath, who was in the United States earlier this year to raise awareness about the persecution of Christians in Orissa and the state of religious freedom in India.

The anti-Christian violence broke out in Orissa after a Hindu fundamentalist leader, Laxmananda Saraswati, was murdered in August 2008. Hindus blamed Christians for killing Saraswati even though Maoist rebels had publicly claimed responsibility for the murder.

Following the swami's death, Hindu mobs attacked Christians, burning their homes, shops, churches and orphanages. More than 30,000 Christians from Orissa were forced to take shelter in refugee camps, where the living conditions were poor, or in the jungle, where they were in danger of being attacked by wild animals.

About 4,500 Christian homes were burned and 180 churches destroyed. At least 60 Christians were killed, according to the Orissa government's report, but church leaders in Orissa report higher figures and have accused the government of intentionally undercounting the number of deaths.

In his January visit, Archbishop Cheenath expressed his frustration toward the Indian government's lack of concern for the violence in Orissa. The Catholic leader questioned why the government was able to stop terrorists during the Mumbai attacks within three days, but couldn't stop their own citizens from attacking Christians in Orissa for more than four months.

"So you can see the difference," Archbishop Cheenath said earlier during an event in Washington, D.C. "There is discrimination. There is a neglect from the state as well as the central government because Orissa is not an important place."

Orissa is a poor state, Cheenath said, noting that there is a "very high" percentage of Christians in some areas there. These Christians are poor Dalits or from tribal groups.

Among the true stories Cheenath told included one about a young Hindu girl who was babysitting at a Christian orphanage and was gang raped and then thrown alive into a bonfire by Hindu extremists.

The Hindu mob had mistakenly assumed the girl was Christian because she worked at a Catholic orphanage. But in reality, the Catholic priest who oversaw the orphanage promised to help pay the girl's educational expenses if she would help out at the orphanage. The girl was not forced to convert to Christianity and remained a Hindu while working at the ministry.

Cheenath condemned the attack as "diabolic" and said those who could do such gruesome acts are "not human."

But the archbishop expressed more hope that justice will be done after the conviction of Mallick. He believes the first conviction will encourage more witnesses to come forward to testify in future cases. Many witnesses are fearful of testifying because of the threat and danger they put themselves in by doing so.

There are about 800 cases that have been filed in relation to the anti-Christian violence, a district official told CNN.

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