Christians Face Hindus' Wrath

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By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 15, 2008

GHUMUSAR UDAYAGIRI, India -- Babita Nayak was cooking lunch for her pregnant sister when a mob of Hindu extremists wielding swords, hammers and long sticks rampaged through their village, chanting "India is for Hindus! Convert or leave!"

The men, wearing saffron headbands, ransacked dozens of huts, searching for cash and looting bicycles and livestock. They torched the village church, leaving behind burned Bibles in the local Kui language and torn-down posters of Jesus. "Christianity is a foreign religion," they shouted over bullhorns, according to eyewitness and police reports.

Hearing that such attacks were spreading in the mist-shrouded hills of this destitute part of Orissa state, the sisters fled with hundreds of neighbors, trekking through forest land. After two days, they reached this crowded makeshift relief camp, set up on the campus of a dank high school, 15 miles from their village.

"I just want to go home and rest before the birth," wept Shyamala Nayak, who is seven months pregnant, as her wailing 3-year-old daughter tugged on her sari. The sisters and dozens of others huddled under a sweltering and leaky tent. The stench of urine wafted through.

"If we go back, they will kill us," her sister told her firmly, reaching for her hand. "We must stay."

Communal violence between Muslims and Hindus is a fact of life in India, but from time to time Christians, who make up about 2.4 percent of the country's 1.1 billion people, come under pressure, as well.

In 1999, an Australian missionary and his two sons were burned alive in Orissa. Last Christmas, according to government reports, at least four Christians were killed, and 105 churches and 700 Christian homes were burned. Several dozen Hindu homes also were destroyed about the same time; the Reuters news agency reported attacks on one or two Hindu temples.

The violence is driven by rising anger over Christian conversions -- members of the faith here are a mix of Baptists, Pentecostals and Catholics -- and economic tensions between communities, according to government and church officials.

A six-hour drive from Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, into the isolated and winding jungle-lined roads showed remnants of fatal attacks and arson directed at Indian Christians in recent weeks: razed churches, scorched orphanages and homes, and roads blocked by downed trees, boulders and stick-waving mobs. Saffron flags (saffron is the color several Hindu right-wing organizations use for self-representation) flew over Hindu-owned tea shops and homes to protect them from attack.

All told, as many as 4,000 Christian homes and 115 churches were destroyed in the region. Amid the lush corn and rice farms of Kandhamal district, more than 35 people were killed for their faith, the All India Christian Council reported; government officials estimate 18 deaths.

There are increasing reports that women were sexually abused, but victims are slow to come forward because of the stigma attached to rape.

About 20,000 people have been displaced, most of them huddled into 14 squalid government-run camps across Kandhamal. About 5,000 have left their homes in Ganjam district, media reports say.


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