Anti-Christian Violence in India

By Benjamin Marsh 9-08-2008

Last week Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, and world governments (including our own) publicly spoke out on an issue that has barely broken through the international news. On August 24, a massive program of violence against Christians began in the Kandhamal district in the Indian state of Orissa after a Hindu leader, Swami Saraswati, was killed by Maoist rebels. Retaliatory violence has claimed at least 25 lives and sent 10,000 Christians fleeing into the jungle. This is the same region that was torn apart by violence instigated by Swami and other Hindu extremists against Christians on Christmas Eve of last year. Ben and I had the honor of visiting the area this past June on a delegation trip in which we interviewed families and witnessed firsthand the degree to which justice has been denied to thousands of people who lost their homes, churches, and sense of security. Even then it was clear that the root causes of the violence had not been fully addressed and that the situation remained a volatile one without stronger state intervention to pursue justice and foster reconciliation.

According to the All India Council of Churches, "The Christmas 2007 attacks claimed the lives of at least four Christians, and we verified the destruction of at least 105 churches and 730 Christian homes. The current spate of violence will exceed these totals as it continues to spread into other districts. Our estimate from Ground Zero is close to two dozen people dead -- one a Hindu girl burnt to death working for a Christian orphanage -- a nun has been gang-raped, religious men and women personnel humiliated, beaten, tortured, some close to death, while policemen have looked on or have been absent. We appeal for the restoration of law and order. But the root cause must also be addressed."

A growing chorus of leaders are speaking out against the violence, including: "Last week Pope Benedict XVI 'firmly condemned' the violence in Orissa and called on Indians 'to work together to restore peaceful co-existence and harmony between the different religious communities'" (Source: Sydney Morning Herald). "Indian Muslim Council-USA (IMC-USA), an advocacy group based in the U.S., denounced 'in the strongest terms,' the violence and the killing of VHP leader that preceded this violence" (Source: Indian Muslims). "The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom calls on the U.S. Department of State to urge the Indian government to take immediate steps to quell the violence against religious communities in the state of Orissa" (Source: USCIRF). There are many more statements we could post, voices of concern from Christianity Today, the Italian government, Christian organizations within India, and more.

Conspicuously missing from these statements is the voice of the Indian government itself. Its deafening silence is a loud indicator of India's lack of commitment to protect her minorities, uphold justice, and to protect peace.

When a despotic government pursues or tacitly supports violence against a minority population, the world community often complains loudly and often dedicates significant resources to restore security and promote justice. India, however, is the world's largest democracy and America's largest trading partner. India is often pointed to as an example of a successful post-colonial democracy, a nation where the advancement of democracy and the pursuit of freedom resulted in a strong, multireligious nation.

How do we then explain the terrible violence being waged against Christians this week or the immolation of Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002?

The bitter reality is that India is a nation that, while remaining dedicated to the basic principle of democracy, so often fails to adequately protect the rights of minorities. Christians, Muslims, Dalits, Scheduled Tribes, and other minority groups in India are too often vulnerable and persecuted, while their plight serves as an electoral "issue" and hot topic for debates and public speeches to gain new voting blocs.

Too often the United States' concern over religious freedom and human rights gets trumped by economic and trade interests. Our ability to apply real pressure on the government of India becomes muted to a whisper by these overriding foreign policy priorities. I pray that you will join us in lifting up prayers for the people of Orissa. These prayers can then be followed by tangible support to the ongoing relief effort and by advocacy to hold the Indian and U.S. governments more accountable to their professed ideal of protecting freedom, including the fragile freedom of the Christian and other minorities in India.

Benjamin Marsh is the state department liaison for the Dalit Freedom Network. Adam Taylor is the senior political director for Sojourners.

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