Courtesy Gethin Chamberlain, The Observer
Thousands of terrified Indian Christians are hiding in the forests of the volatile Indian state of Orissa after a wave of religious â€˜cleansingâ€™ forced them from their burnt-out homes with no immediate prospect of return.
A mob of Hindu fundamentalists rampaged through villages last week, killing those too slow to get out of their way, burning churches and an orphanage, and targeting the homes of Christians. Up to 20 people were reported dead, with at least two deliberately set alight, after the murder of a Hindu leader last Saturday provoked the violence.
In some districts, entire villages lay deserted, abandoned by Christian populations who would rather shelter in the forests than return to face the risk of death. Some villagers attempted to return to their homes yesterday despite threats of further violence.
But Christian leaders who had spoken to those who have fled said that even among the trees they were not safe. Some of their tormenters have pursued them, trying to finish the job.
One of those hiding in the forest, Abalkora Diggal, described how a group arrived at Balkidadi village on Monday morning chanting anti-Christian slogans. â€˜In the evening, a much bigger group of over 1,000 people fired in the air and warned us to leave if we wanted to stay alive,â€™ he told a local journalist.
They fled into the forest, emerging only when they saw an aid convoy arrive under heavy police protection. Afterwards, they returned to the forest, without food or fresh water. â€˜I had a home and a tractor. I reared goats and hens. Now I have nothing,â€™ said Mr Diggal.
Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Bishopâ€™s Conference of India, told The Observer that many people were too frightened to return to their homes.
After speaking by mobile phone to some of those in hiding, he said: â€˜They are living without food or drink and even there they are being hunted down by these people. I have spoken to nuns and priests who are hiding in the forests.
â€˜They said that it was a horrifying experience. Groups arrived at their villages carrying guns, swords and homemade weapons and even small bombs, which they used to blast the places. The groups targeted every Christian house in their villages. The people had a list of the Christian houses and institutions and none were spared.â€™ The Church said nearly 3,000 houses had been destroyed, most of them owned by Christians. More than 60 churches were burned down and at least half a dozen convents.
â€˜It is the result of a sustained hate campaign against Christians in Orissa,â€™ Rev Joseph said.
Manmohan Singh, the Indian Prime Minister, described the violence as a â€˜national shameâ€™, while Raphael Cheenath, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, called for an end to the â€˜ethnic cleansing of Christiansâ€™.
The violence erupted after the murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmananda Saraswati at an ashram last Saturday night, along with four other activists from the hardline Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) party.
It was claims by the VHP that Christians were to blame for the deaths that acted as a trigger for the killing spree, although Maoist guerillas have since claimed responsibility for the murders. Reports said that about 30 Maoists opened fire on the ashram. A spokesman for the Peopleâ€™s Liberation Guerrilla Army said it had targeted Saraswati, who had campaigned against conversions and the killing of cows, for â€˜fascist activitiesâ€™.
The revenge killings have been indiscriminate: a 19-year-old Hindu Rajni Majhi was burned to death by a mob who attacked the Christian-run Missionary Orphan Centre in the Bargarh district.
Some of the 150,000 Christians in the Kandhamal area have been sheltered by Hindu neighbours, but about 5,000 are believed to have sought refuge in the forests, with up to 10,000 under guard in camps set up by the government.
Underlying the violence is a long-simmering dispute between Hindus and Christians in the state over the conversion of low-caste Hindus to Catholicism. The success of the Christian churches has fuelled resentment among hardline Hindus. The Vatican has condemned the violence. Most of Indiaâ€™s billion-plus citizens are Hindu, while just 2.5 per cent of them are Christians.
Shoot-on-sight orders were issued to security forces in eight districts and a curfew remained in place yesterday in nine districts.
About 3,000 Christians demonstrated outside the Orissa state building in New Delhi yesterday, holding placards calling for peace and condemning the state government. On Friday about 25,000 Catholic schools were closed in a symbolic protest against the killings.