WASHINGTON – The Indian government ignored the brutal anti-Christian campaign in the remote state of Orissa for months because the population is poor and uneducated, said Catholic Archbishop Raphael Cheenath on Wednesday at an event discussing the state of religious freedom in India.
At least half of the population in Orissa belongs to the outcast segment – untouchables or tribal – based on the caste system, noted the Archbishop of Cuttack and Bhubaneswar, located in the region of Orissa, at the event hosted by public policy think tank Hudson Institute.
As a result, the government is "not interested" in developing Orissa, which remains the least developed and poorest state in India despite being the biggest supplier of minerals in the country, he said.
"Orissa, in the eyes of the government, is a non-entity as a state," Cheenath, who is visiting the United States this week, said.
To support his argument, the Archbishop pointed out that a fact-finding team from the central government arrived in Orissa only after the violence against Christians had been raging on for two and a half months.
However, when Karnataka, a state in South India, was attacked, the government was able to stop the violence within five days "because there are more educated and more important people there – politicians," Cheenath claimed.
Then when the Mumbai attacks occurred, the violence was stopped in three days "though they were the most dreaded terrorists," he noted.
Cheenath, frustrated over the lack of concern for Orissa, wrote a letter to the Indian prime minister saying that he does not understand how the government can stop the Mumbai attacks in three days, Karnataka in five days, but couldn't stop the attacks on Christians in Orissa after more than four months.
"So you can see the difference," Archbishop Cheenath said. "There is discrimination. There is a neglect from the state as well as the central government because Orissa is not an important place."
Earlier in the talk, the Archbishop informed the audience that Orissa's northeast region has a "very high" percentage of Christians - anywhere from 60 to 90 percent - compared to one percent or at most 17 percent in other areas of the state and country.
Many of the Christians in Orissa are poor Dalits or from tribal groups. Hindu fundamentalists have accused Christians of forcibly converting the tribals in Orissa, but Cheenath explained that the tribal had no prior religion before accepting Christianity. Tribal Indians are animists so it is false when Hindus say they converted to Christianity from Hinduism.
The attacks on Christians began in mid-August after the murder of a Hindu religious leader. Maoist rebels have publicly claimed responsibility for the murder, but Hindu fanatics insist on laying the blame on Christians and destroying their homes and churches in retaliation.
Since August, more than 60 Christians have been killed; 18,000, wounded; 181 churches, razed or destroyed; 4,500 Christian homes, burned; and more than 50,000 Christians, displaced, of whom more than 30,000 remain in refugee camps or in hiding in the jungle, according to media reports.
In one heartbreaking story, Cheenath recalled learning 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 fanatics.
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 he also noted that the tragedy has resulted in some positive effects, including helping to unite different Christian traditions such as Catholics, Baptists, and Lutherans who came together to support the persecuted Christians.
Also, India's Supreme Court recently ruled in favor of the Orissa Christians, thus helping to advance religious freedom and human rights in the country. The Supreme Court ordered the Orissa government to do everything in its power to stop a Hindu procession that was planned to turn into a massive attack on Christians; to compensate Christians whose homes were destroyed or whose family members have been killed; and for the central patrol police maintain peace in Orissa until after the election in April.
After the Supreme Court ruling, the Orissa government is said to have become more responsive to complaints because they know that Christians will not remain passive and continue to be abused.
Cheenath had filed the Supreme Court case on behalf of Christians in Orissa.
Orissa remains the only state in India where violence against Christians remains high, although outbreaks of anti-Christian attacks had occurred in at least eight other states in India since last August.