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World church leader says Indian PM assured him on Christians


The general secretary of the World Council of Churches, the Rev. Samuel Kobia, has said the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had told him that federal assistance would be provided to rebuild churches and Christian houses destroyed in violence against Christians in eastern Orissa state, and peace will be restored in the region.

Singh gave the assurances when Kobia called on him at his residence in New Delhi at the end of a 16-18 October visit to India. Kobia said Singh had also promised that a team of federal cabinet ministers would soon visit Orissa to map out a rehabilitation package for affected Christians in the troubled Kandhamal district of the state.

After their 18 October meeting, Kobia told a news conference of his "satisfaction" over the assurances that Singh had given to the four-member church delegation, which also included Bishop Tharanath Sagar, a Methodist and president of the National Council of Churches in India.

Quoting the Indian prime minister, Kobia said Singh had told him the government in Delhi was "duty bound to religious minorities", and harassed Christians would be able to return to their villages and practice their faith without fear.

As many as 54 Christians have been killed, and more than 5000 Christian homes, along with scores of churches and Christian institutions, looted and torched in violence by Hindu extremists in Kandhamal. The violence followed the murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, who Maoist rebels claimed to have shot dead on 23 August.

In the violence that followed the killing, Hindu groups are said to have forcibly converted Christians to Hinduism. More than two thirds of the 100 000 Christians in Kandhamal have become refugees in jungles or one of 14 newly established government relief camps, or have fled to cities such as Bhubaneswar.

Though Kobia quoted the Indian prime minister as saying that the Indian constitution guaranteed the freedom to practice one’s faith, the WCC leader said this had "been undermined by the continued violence" against Christians in Orissa and other parts of the country.

Kobia told the news conference it had been "pleasing" to hear from the prime minister that "Christianity was part of our national heritage", thereby rebutting Hindu nationalist groups’ projection of Christianity as a foreign religion in India.

Kobia declined to comment on the Hindu nationalist groups said to be behind the attacks on Christians. Still, Bishop Sagar, who heads the 30 Protestant and Orthodox churches that make up the National Council of Churches in India, described the violence as "a systematic campaign". "The attacks on Christians are really vicious; they are simply being slaughtered like lambs," said Sagar. 

(c) Ecumenical News International