Indian Archbishop denounces foul play in elections

An Archbishop in Orissa has accused Hindu nationalists of threatening voters in the ongoing elections with violence and pursuing a secret agenda aimed at flushing Christianity out of the region.

Speaking in an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Raphael Cheenath said the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was determined to stamp out Christianity in Kandhamal district, home to the majority of churchgoers in Orissa.

The Archbishop's comments come after leading clergy in eastern India’s Orissa state claimed that BJP leaders made death threats against people unwilling to vote for them.

According to other reports from Catholic priests in Orissa, the BJP warned Christians in Orissa’s Kandhamal district that if they voted for other candidates, the party would bully them into leaving the area.

The BJP is reportedly confident of victory in Kandhamal, where the vote was held last Thursday as part of the month-long series of elections taking place across the country.

Nearly 30,000 people fled for their lives in 2007 and 2008 during attacks on nearly 300 villages in Kandhamal that left 80 people dead, including a Catholic priest. About 270 churches and chapels were desecrated and 6,000 homes were destroyed.

While acknowledging that people in relief camps in Kandhamal were mostly able to vote, “several thousands” who fled the district during last year’s anti-Christian violence were denied the vote because they were prevented from registering.

Speaking from Bangalore, Archbishop Cheenath said: “The BJP party officials have threatened to attack the Christians and chase them away. The threats were very serious and there has been a great fear among the people.

“The problem for the people was made worse because the authorities in Orissa took no tangible steps to prevent such things from happening.”

The Archbishop continued: “The secret agenda of the [BJP politicians] is to remove the Christians from Kandhamal.

“It was clear that this was what they wanted to do before the elections and if they win again there is no doubt that they will continue in that way.”

His comments come after a Catholic priest, who cannot be named for security reasons, reported that trees were felled on election day in Kandhamal to block access to villages and prevent people from voting.

Describing his visit to almost a dozen polling booths, the priest wrote of people being too afraid to come out of their homes to vote.

“There was hardly any movement of the people,” he recalled. “My colleagues and I were scared ... I reached the polling booth of my village but after only two hours [of voting] the booth was literally empty. We were the first ones to cast our votes.”

Referring to the Christians forced out of Kandhamal and unable to vote, he wrote: “One must remember that thousands of affected people, who are still living [outside the district] had not exercised their franchise. Who is responsible? Are these not citizens?”

He alleged that four Hindus gang-raped a girl after discovering that her uncle had refused to abandon his Christian faith. “The culprits are still in the village,” he added.

BJP Kandhamal candidate Ashok Sahu was arrested in the run-up to the elections for making an anti-Christian speech in the Kandhamal village of Raikia but has since been released.

Mr Sahu was reportedly closely linked to Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, the militant anti-Christian Hindu leader whose murder last August sparked widespread violence against Christians.