150-strong peace delegation heads to Orissa

The bishop charged with restoring hope after India’s worst outbreak of anti-Christian persecution in modern times has high hopes that a large-scale peace mission starting on Thursday will at last enable thousands of displaced people to return home.

Tens of thousands of Christians from India’s Orissa state are still too afraid to go back to their villages more than three months after extremists ransacked entire villages, killing up to 500 people and destroying at least 4,000 homes and more than 100 churches and chapels in Kandhamal district.

With widespread reports of continuing threats on Christians’ lives by extremist Hindus, who refuse to allow them to return unless they convert, senior clergy have become increasingly worried for the long-term survival in Kandhamal.

But now in an interview with visitors of the Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need, Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar said that a peace mission to Kandhamal led by Indian dignitaries will persuade the Hindu communities to reconcile with their Christian neighbours.

The 150-strong team, involving teachers and dignitaries both in Orissa and the Indian capital Delhi, plans to go from house to house meeting people to dispel fears whipped up by Hindu militants that the Christians represent a threat to their way of life and are trying to convert them.

Newly-returned to his diocesan headquarters in the Orissa state capital, Bhubaneshwar, Archbishop Cheenath said he believed the mission offered a rare ray of hope not least because the team involved includes both Hindus as well as Christians.

He said: “The peace mission is something that must be done. What is so promising about it is that the initiative has come not from our own community but from others, including other religious groups.”

The archbishop continued: “The plans the mission coordinators have set in place build on the fact that 50 to 60 percent of Hindus in Kandhamal – and elsewhere – are extremely sorry about what has happened and want to cooperate in any steps to bring back normalcy.”

First-hand reports confirm that in Kandhamal, Hindu relations with Christians broke down after extremist politician Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, whose death in August triggered the latest violence, had orchestrated a campaign of hatred against Catholics and Protestants alike.

And, contrary to reports claiming the atrocities were a spontaneous reaction to the Swami’s murder, a carefully planned initiative took place in which extremists brainwashed Hindus in Kandhamal to take up arms against their neighbours.

Until now, very few Christians in Kandhamal have returned to their smashed-up homes and are under pressure from government officials to leave relief camps both in the district and elsewhere including Bhubaneshwar and nearby Cuttack.

Archbishop Cheenath said: “We desperately want to get people back to their homes but for that to take place, they need to be protected. We are asking the police to continue to stay in the region.”