x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Fearful Christians pretend to be Hindu

People in India's remote Orissa state cling to their beliefs despite forced conversion rituals and attacks by militants opposed to their faith.

KOLKATA // Christians in the state of Orissa are pretending to be Hindus to protect themselves from militants who continue to threaten them nearly 10 months after a wave of sectarian violence. Orissa's Christian leaders reported this week that in some remote villages of Kandhamal district Christian families are still living with an "outwardly adopted" Hindu identity. They maintain their faith despite being forced to take part in Hindu conversion rituals following an outburst of attacks against Christians after a Hindu monk and four of his associates were killed in Kandhamal district in August. Although police later found Maoists responsible for the killings, militant Hindu groups launched anti-Christian riots that over several weeks saw 122 Christians killed or go missing, hundreds of houses and churches destroyed, thousands of people driven from their villages and 3,000 Christians reportedly forced to convert. Several months after his house was vandalised, Narahari Digal refuses to remove the saffron-coloured flag - a symbol of Hindu power - that was left on the roof. Mr Digal and his family were forced to flee Adunaju village in August after rioters attacked Christians. When he returned home in April, after hiding in a forest for several weeks and then spending months in state-run relief camps, he found his house looted and the flag on the roof. The 42-year-old farm labourer said yesterday he did not remove the Hindu flag because he believed it prevented activists from coming back to attack his home. He said as recently as April he overheard the militants were still active and many of the Hindu villagers had joined them. "Sources in the villages said to us that the Hindu activists had threatened not to let us live in the village unless we converted to Hinduism. So like some of our other Christian neighbours we have kept the Hindu flags flying," said Mr Digal. "Now as those activists and their informers find that we have saffron flags attached to our house they would assume that we have embraced Hinduism as well and would spare attacking us. "Although the saffron flag is flying on top of our house we have not changed our religion. Now we cannot practise our faith openly, fearing attacks from the Hindu radicals, but at heart we are still Christian." Mr Digal's wife, Uma, said before going to bed at night she still reads the Bible and the family prays together, as they have always done as Christians. "I have faith in God. I believe my prayers will be answered and those Hindu militants who made us homeless last year will soon lose their hold." Community leaders said the situation was changing and the "dark phase" for Orissa Christians could soon be over. Asit Mohanty, the regional co-ordinator of the Global Council of Indian Christians in Orissa, said the heavy defeat suffered by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party, in the recent elections has put Hindu activists under pressure. "As soon as Biju Janata Dal [which broke its political alliance from the BJP just before the elections] came to power, Christians got a signal that the state government would try its best to rein in the anti-Christian forces. In the past month most of the Kandhamal Christians who had been camouflaging as Hindus have come out in the open. Yet it's a fact that some hundreds of others in remote parts of Kandhamal still cannot practise Christianity openly." Mr Mohanty said in the past fortnight the police chief of Kandhamal district, Praveen Kumar, personally led his forces to some villages and removed saffron-coloured flags from some Christian houses and assured families they would be protected. Although most relief camps were closed this year, 1,462 Christian riot victims are still living in eight camps in Kandhamal. Last week, as India's home minister, P Chidambaram, visited Kandhamal to review the relief situation for last year's riot victims, he admitted that because of a "failure" in policing in the first few weeks of the rioting that Christians had suffered. "I am sorry that certain things happened last year and you have been brought to these camps, but you must go back to your villages. I am here to remove your fear and assure you that the government will offer all protection," Mr Chidambaram said in a speech in the Tikabali relief camp. "Christians are living all over the country. Nobody has any rights to question you on your identity or citizenship. Fear is your worst enemy. Counter this with boldness and start life afresh." But in Dodingia village, where 35 Christian families were "forcibly" converted to Hinduism in September, Gunadhar Pradhan said he trusted the government, but not the police. "Even though we are still being forced to live as Hindus, I believe BJD is a secular party and it sincerely wants to protect Christians' rights," said Mr Pradhan, whose family was forced to convert. "But a section of the police is biased and they did not want to take action against the rioters. "Those policemen are still in the force. So if the authorities turn lax and the Hindu activists want to run rampage again, we may face trouble again." aziz@thenational.ae