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A dark tunnel ahead

Dominic Emmanuel

"Conversions" is a bogey raised by religio-political elements to justify ethnic cleansing and no amount of evidence will persuade them to terminate their policy

Rarely in life does one face such the paradox of being weighed down with heavy foreboding before setting out on a journey and at the same time being ever so fired with the hope of achieving something positive.

Last Saturday, when the Archbishop of Delhi, Vincent M. Concessao, phoned me to suggest that there was a proposal for Church leaders to meet with the RSS and VHP leaders on the issue of violence in Orissa, I agreed immediately to be part of it. Little did I realise that I would have to travel to Bhubaneshwar to engage in dialogue. From the media and Church personnel based in the violence-affected areas, we learnt that in the unending violence against the minority peace loving Christian community, 137 Churches, convents, pastoral centers, presbyteries and more than 4,000 houses had either been burnt or destroyed partially. More than 50,000 Christians sought refuge in the forests and were still hiding there. So, the price of going to Bhubaneshwar was not really too great, I thought. Mr. Maxwell Pereira too joined the delegation from Delhi. Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar stayed back to pursue legal means to address the situation.

The current and second phase of ethnic cleansing of Christians from the area has come exactly eight months after the first one that had begun on Christmas Eve 2007, in which more than 40 churches, convents and 700 Christian houses were burnt down. Braving the severe winter, the Christian villagers hid in the jungles surviving on forest products for weeks. The second phase of attacks started after the brutal killing of Swami Laxmananda Saraswati who had been working in the Kondhmal area for the last 40 years. Among one of his stated objectives was to wipe out Christians and Christianity from Kondhmal and its environs, because their numbers had increased over the past 30 years, allegedly by use of force and fraudulent means used by Christian missionaries.

The RSS, VHP, Bajarang Dal, Hindu Jagaran Manch and host of other Hindu front organisations, generally known as the Sangh Parivar, have serious problem with people converting to Christianity of their own free will. On the other hand, they consider it quite legitimate to re-convert them through intimidation. Their thesis is simple: since Islam and Christianity are "foreign religions", their followers and those who get converted to them automatically pay allegiance to those imaginary foreign countries and are, by extension of this logic, anti-national.

The Sangh Parivar is not to be distracted by arguments and evidence, by way of statistics or the contribution Christians have made to the development of our country in terms of education or health services or their role in the army, in preserving the languages and cultures of India. They will willfully ignore the simple fact that the Christian population of India, for all the claims of "conversion", is actually falling. Christians made up 2.8 per cent of the population of India in 1961. In 2001, they constituted 2.33 per cent.

Yet, what does one see at the RSS Shakhas? Full blast ideological brainwashing that Christian missionaries are about to convert all Hindus and make India a subsidiary of the United States. The voice of a 2 per cent Christian community against the 84 per cent majority's just gets drowned, as was the case when the crowd before Pontius Pilate shouted against Jesus, "Crucify Him, Crucify Him".

The Church has quite unequivocal in its official documents and keeps repeating ad nauseam that conversion to Christianity by force or fraudulent means is strictly prohibited. The Indian Constitution as well as the Indian Penal Code considers such activities criminal. Yet, several Indian states have passed anti-conversion laws. Orissa was the first ones to do so in 1967. It has become an instrument to harass and obstruct the selfless service given out by workers of the Church who are merely following Jesus' command.

Despite the Maoists and the state police department stating that that the killing of the Swamiji was carried out by the Maoists, the venom-spitting Praveen Togadia visited the affected areas to rouse rabble. In typical style, he blamed the Christians for the murder. He cared little to note that all the Christian groups had immediately condemned the brutal killing of the Swami and his associates and had asked for the culprits to be caught and punished.

The Christian community was thus pushed against the wall and pitted at the receiving end of those who professed staunch hostility towards them. Against this backdrop, our delegation, which comprised the Archbishop of Delhi, Mr. Maxwell Pereira and myself, and facilitated by the chairman of Jain TV, left for Bhubaneshwar on September 2. Bishop Sarat Chandranayak of Berhampur and Dr. Swarupnanda Patro of the Baptist Federation of Orissa joined us there. We met Mr Ashok Das, the Orissa chief of the RSS; Mr. Ashok Sahu of the Hindu Jagaran Manch; Bipin Behari Rath -- State President VHP; Laxmikant Das -- State general secretary Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram; Prof Gopal Chandra Mohapatra -- General Secretary RSS; Gauri Prasad Rath -- State General Secretary VHP.

Each side spoke about the grievances they had collected against the other. It was a marathon session lasting over five hours. The major concern of the Christian delegation was the immediate restoration of peace and harmony and punishing of those engaged in violence. However, the other side kept harping on the issue of conversion, which they demanded should stop immediately. No sooner was the meeting over than did we hear the news that another 84 houses and one church was set on fire and that Christians were being threatened to either convert to Hinduism or face death.

In spite of this adverse situation, we agreed to issue a joint statement. It was released by Dr JK Jain. The following are its salient features: Every participant agreed that peace and harmony should be the top priority for all and that truth and justice must be the basis for all further decisions and actions; to put an end to hostilities and violence immediately so that peace may prevail among all; to denounce the killings and violence of any kind on anyone and everyone and commit to collaborate with the government to provide relief measures to the affected people immediately and to rehabilitate them at the earliest; that the communities in conflict as well as the concerned authorities set up peace committees so that problems may be amicably settled with respect for legitimate differences and concerns of the communities; not to yield to rumours or succumb to instigation from outside elements and mischievous forces who come to divide and destroy and then disappear. They must be identified and handed over to the authorities for action in accordance with law and that this intercommunity dialogue shall be continued to seek a better future for our countrymen and our future generations. The Christian delegation did express its apprehensions on the proposed Shraad Yatra scheduled for September 7. We feared that it may generate fresh passions against the Christians.

At the end of it all, I realised that it was much easier to write a rational PhD thesis on intercommunity dialogue than to have an actual dialogue on ground with those who are so opposed to the richness of Bharatmata in all its cultural diversity.

-- The writer is a Catholic priest and spokesperson of the Archdiocese of Delhi

Source: The Pioneer