US Commission to investigate India’s anti-Christian Violence

The bishop in India whose diocese has been at the center of anti-Christian violence has welcomed news of a fact-finding visit by a US government human rights organization.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom will visit Orissa next month (June), before issuing a report later in the summer. In an interview with Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), the Catholic charity for persecuted and other suffering Christians, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar welcomed the commission’s interest in Orissa, saying he hoped it would persuade the authorities in India to do more to protect minority rights.

Archbishop Cheenath told ACN, “I would be happy if they put pressure on the government to put into practice what is in the constitution. If an independent body can force local government to put into practice the provision of the constitution – religious freedom – it would be good for all minorities.”

The commission’s visit comes eight months after two waves of anti-Christian violence in 2007-8 swept the Orissa district of Kandhamal where more than 80 people died and nearly 6,000 were made homeless. Almost 30,000 fled their villages in a series of attacks orchestrated by Hindu militants. Many thousands have yet to return home and still others have left Orissa for a new life elsewhere in India.

Since the attacks, Archbishop Cheenath has described his increased frustration at alleged government inaction to punish those responsible for the attacks, its apparent failure to organize proper police protection as well as provide sufficient compensation for the victims.

Reports received by ACN have underlined the archbishop’s concern about apparent intimidation of Christians during the recent general elections, including threats to chase them away and even kill them if they refused to vote for extremist parties.

In his interview earlier this week, the archbishop stressed that Christians are not the only religious group harassed by Hindu militants, mentioning problems faced by Buddhists and Muslims.

The archbishop’s comments come after reports from Asia News stated that Archbishop Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary general of the Indian bishops’ conference, had welcomed the US commission’s visit, saying he hoped it would contribute to “accelerating the path of justice for the Christians of Kandhamal.” Archbishop Fernandes said, “The Church is not seeking vengeance – as Christians we are forgiving – however, as agents of peace, the Church seeks justice which is essential for peace, and reconciliation which is essential in the process of rebuilding and building sustainable peace and stability among communities.”

ACN is sponsoring peace-building programs under the auspices of Archbishop Cheenath in places where there are fears that Christians will continue be the target of attacks. As part of these projects, all groups – especially the young – will be encouraged to undertake joint activities to help rebuild trust and cooperation.

As well as visiting Orissa, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom will be visiting Gujarat, western India, where in 2002 more than 1,000 Muslims died in clashes with Hindus. In September 2008 the commission sent a letter to the then US President George Bush urging him to raise its concerns about violence against Christian in Orissa – and broader issues of violence and intolerance between India’s religious communities – with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom will not be the first such body to visit the area to examine the problem of religious violence. The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Asma Jahangir, visited India in March 2008 to examine the violence in Orissa over Christmas 2007. In her report, released in February 2009, she noted extremist groups had spread religious hatred which had “unleashed an all-pervasive fear of mob violence.”

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