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India churches denounce Hindu leader’s killing, but fear reprisals

Bangalore, India 26 August (ENI)

Christian groups in India have condemned the killing of a prominent Hindu leader, and called on government security forces to protect them from reprisal attacks in eastern Orissa state, where inter-communal violence has flared in recent times.

Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the most senior leader of an extreme Hindu nationalist group in Orissa, was shot and killed along with five junior monks, allegedly by more than 20 Maoists who stormed his home on 23 August in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. The killings triggered about 100 attacks in the area on minority Christians, who were blamed for the deaths.

All India Christian Council officials said they had received one report of a nun being burnt alive during an attack on an orphanage, and another of the rape of a nun.

Statements deploring the killing of the 82-year-old Hindu monk were sent by the Roman Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, the Church of North India, which has three dioceses in Orissa, the All India Christian Council, and the Evangelical Fellowship of India.

"We strongly condemn the dastardly attack and violent killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and his associates," said Raphael Cheenath, the Catholic archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, whose diocese includes the Kandhamal district where the slain monk had his base.

Later, in an interview with the Catholic AsiaNews, Cheenath likened Hindu nationalism’s fomenting of attacks against Christians to a cancer undermining inter-communal coexistence, which, he said, is the foundation of Indian society. The archbishop specifically cited nationalism as expressed through the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or National Volunteers’ Organization, and liked it to the Nazism of Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

"We feel totally abandoned. This morning, the authorities sent three policemen to watch over the nuns’ convent and the bishop’s residence but they don’t even have a stick to protect us from the fury of the mob," said Cheenath. He added he believed anti-Christian and anti-Muslim violence was rooted in the ideology that had developed around the RSS, and that inspired some members of fanatical groups linked to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"We Christians refuse violence. We condemn every act of violence and terrorism but we are also against taking the law into our own hands," said the Catholic leader. "As soon as we heard about Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati’s assassination, I issued a public statement strongly condemning the dastardly attack and murders. I called on everyone to remain peaceful and in harmony. We want relations of friendship with all communities."

Condemning the killing, the Rev. P.R. Parichcha, the All India Christian Council coordinator, expressed fears that the killing of Saraswati could "further destabilise the situation in the communally sensitive Kandhamal district".

Christian groups said that widespread anti-Christian violence in the Kandhamal district that had begun during Christmas festivities in 2007 had been pre-planned and that Saraswati had played a key role in it.

The Rev. Enos Das Pradhan, general secretary of the Church of North India synod, appealed to the Orissa chief minister as well as the Indian federal government, "to immediately provide protection to the minority Christians" in Orissa.

Archbishop Cheenath told Ecumenical News International on 25 August that Hindu groups had set fire to three churches and a van belonging to Catholic nuns. "We urge the government to ensure that the Christmas nightmare is not repeated," the archbishop said.