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Christian youths turn to militancy

Religious minority joins hands with Maoists and could ally with Muslim activists to fight Hindus after recent attacks on tribals and churches.

One of 400 churches demolished by Hindu militants in Orissa since anti-Christian riots began in August.
One of 400 churches demolished by Hindu militants in Orissa since anti-Christian riots began in August.

KOLKATA // Christian youths in the eastern state of Orissa have turned to militancy by teaming up with local Maoists. Police are concerned that if anti-Christian riots continue, the Christians may also join forces with Muslim militants to take on Hindus. The shift follows seven weeks of violence triggered by the killing of a local Hindu leader, Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, or VHP) with critics claiming authorities are failing to rein in the armed Hindu activists who are attacking Christians.

Chandrasekhar Pattnaik, a police officer with the intelligence branch, said: "Some of these Christian militants might have joined or helped the Maoists in killing Laxmananda Saraswati and his associates in August. "The arrested militants have confessed to their links with Maoist guerrillas hiding in jungles and we think the Maoists have trained these Christian youths in jungle camps since some years ago."

Some security analysts worry the Maoist-Christian alliance could lead to a rise of terrorism in the region and Christian militancy could soon spread to other states. "In the past two weeks we have arrested seven Christian youths - some while they were making bombs and some with guns," said Praveen Kumar, the police chief of Orissa's Kandhamal district. "We suspect, with expertise from the Maoist rebels, some Christian youths have raised a local militia which is possibly targeting the Hindus."

According to police sources, the arrested Christian youths admitted that they got arms and ammunitions, including explosives, from the Maoist rebels. "During interrogation, the arrested Christian militants revealed that many Christian young men who were 'not satisfied with government actions against Hindu militants', were desperate to resort to violence against Hindus in revenge attacks and they were on the lookout for arms and explosives," said one police intelligence officer who specialises in Maoist groups in Orissa's capital, Bhubaneswar.

The officer, who did not want to be identified, said since Muslims also consider the Hindu Bajrang Dal (the militant youth wing of the VHP) their enemy, Muslim activists could team up with Christian militants to target Hindus."If the Muslim and Christian terrorists unite in action, the outcome could be fatal and terrorism could spread to new areas of the country," he said. Last month, P Chidambaram, India's finance minister, warned of "new waves of terror" among minorities if the alienation of the communities was not addressed soon.

However, some Muslim leaders argue that the Muslim-Christian alliance has nothing to do with any terrorist activity. Shahi Imam Syed Mohammad Noorur Rahman Barkati, of Kolkata, who recently wrote to federal ministers demanding security for Christians, said the alliance will fight the Hindu militants using only democratic means. "Christians and Muslim leaders will jointly seek protection for both minorities [Christians and Muslims], mobilising political leaders, government agencies and other secular agencies. Prominent leaders from both communities are part of this solidarity and none with any violent motive can be part of our mission," Mr Barkati said.

"Muslims have suffered most because of this terrorism. We the imams have issued fatwa against all terrorist activities by Muslims. It is utterly wrong if someone foresees any terrorist activity in our democratic move." Christian leaders admit to the rise of the Christian militia in Orissa but blame "inactive" government agencies for pushing the Christian youths to the path of violence "to defend themselves".

Sajan K George, president of the Global Council for Indian Christians, said Hindu activists had been persecuting Christians in Orissa for several years. "The silence and indifference of the authorities have now forced some youths to pick up militancy to fend for themselves," he said. "However, we don't endorse this militancy because it is against the basic tenets of Christianity. Violence can never be fought successfully with violence.

"They [Hindu rioters] are continuing the attack and we are still ready to forgive them." Cecil D' Francis, a church leader in Midnapur in West Bengal, said "denial of justice" had given birth to Christian militancy. "In a desperate situation the [Christian] youths have picked up bombs and guns. But it does not bode well for these Christians in this Orissa region. This militancy, as it happens everywhere, will slow down the socio-economic development of these poorer people and throw them in many other miseries," Mr Francis said.

Although police claim the situation is turning normal in Orissa, the VHP on Friday threatened to "resort to violence" again if its demands, which include no Christian owernship of land in Kandhamal, were not fulfilled by the authorities within a month. "These Hindu leaders are demanding that none be allowed to practise Christianity in Kandhamal," Mr George said. "It means all Christians must leave Orissa if they do not convert to Hinduism within a month. From the Hindu militants it is a clear signal of another spell of violent attack on the Christians."

* The National