CALCUTTA, INDIA // As anti-Christian riots triggered by the killing of a local Hindu leader continued to engulf new areas in eastern Orissa state, scores of fearful Christian families have started converting to Hinduism, local leaders said. Christian leaders said Hindu activists had forced about 3,000 Christans in riot-affected parts of the state to renounce their religion in the past few days. But Hindu leaders said all the conversions were voluntary.
"Armed Hindu activists are raiding the villages and threatening them with violence if they do not convert to Hinduism immediately. We can prove that Christians are being forcibly converted to Hinduism in Kandhamal [the riot-hit Orissa district]," said Sajan K George, the national president of the Global Council of the Indian Christians in Bhubaneshwar, Orissa's state capital. "Fearing for their lives, the poor Christians are taking part in the rituals of conversion to Hinduism. For the past week, in many villages, Hindu activists have been conducting forced conversions," he said.
"The most unfortunate fact is that everything is happening under the nose of the authorities. Despite our appeals neither the state government nor the local police have done anything to protect the Christians." Hindu leaders say that their ongoing Hindu "homecoming" ceremonies are being attended voluntarily by Christians. "The Christian leaders are telling lies. No one is being converted here forcibly. They were originally Hindus and Christian missionaries lured our poor brothers and sisters away from Hinduism. Now these people are voluntarily returning to their original faith [of Hinduism]," said Brahmachari Shankar Chaitanya, a Hindu monk who replaced Swami Laxmananda Saraswati as the head of the Kanya Ashram after his killing on Aug 23.
Police said Saraswati and four other Hindu leaders were killed by Maoist rebels, but Hindus believe it was local Christians, sparking more than a week of riots and revenge attacks. Hindu mobs have raided Christian villages, smashing and setting on fire houses and churches. As many as 43 Christians have died in days of unrest, and thousands more have fled their homes for the jungles. In the latest violence, two people were injured when police fired into a group of protesters yesterday. The violence has brought strong condemnation from the pope and the Italian government.
While in the first few days after the Saraswati's death, Hindus resorted to violence against Christians, since a strict curfew they have changed their strategy and begun organising conversions ceremonies virtually at gunpoint. According to Christian leaders, Hindu activists have even entered the forests where some Christians are hiding to force them to go through the Hindu conversion rituals. "Truckloads of [Hindu] militants from neighbouring states of Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh have entered the area to back up the VHP [Viswa Hindu Parishad or World Hindu Council] campaign. Armed with bombs, swords and guns these VHP militants are pouncing on poor, weak and defenceless Christians," said Mr George.
"They have already killed 43 innocent Christians in this violence. In the past four days at least 3,000 Christians have been forcibly converted to Hinduism. Villagers cowering in fear are giving in to their threats and going through the [Hindu] rituals. It is inhuman," added Mr George. Babu Joseph, another Christian leader, said Hindu activists were shouting slogans in praise of Hinduism and shouting that they would "reconvert" Christians throughout the country.
Kabita Naik, a 22-year-old Christian girl who fled from her village of Raikia on Friday, said her seriously sick grandmother died after Hindu activists besieged her village and refused to let the family buy medicines from the nearby town. "When the body of my grandmother was taken to the Christian burial ground by our [Christian] neighbours, the Hindu activists forcibly took away the body and burnt it [as the Hindus do]. They said, 'you are all Hindus and this Christian burial ground is not meant for your dead'," Ms Naik said, her voice wavering with emotion.
Surajen Naik, 45, wrote in a letter to a relative in Bhubaneshwar that Hindus were destroying the church in his village of Phiringia. He said that he, as well as other villagers, ran into the forest to hide. "Armed with knives and guns they [Hindu activists] entered the forest and said they would kill and dump our bodies in the river if we don't convert. "My children and wife were all crying in fear and I agreed to take part in the ritual the accompanying [Hindu] priests chanted hymns and washed our feet with 'holy' water they were carrying and said 'from today you are Hindus again and can return to your village'."
The government has just opened at least nine refugee shelters in the state for people fleeing the violence where about 10,000 are now living. Hindu-Christian clashes erupt periodically in India, where 2.3 per cent of the more than 1.1 billion population are Christians. * The National