NEW DELHI, January 4 (Compass) - Police decided yesterday to allow a make-shift Hindu temple in Umarkote village but banned Christians from worshiping at a nearby house church following a conflict that led to Hindu extremists attacking four people.
The attackers had set up their temple near the house in October last year and then complained to police that the Christian worship disturbed their own rituals. On Thursday (December 29) they lodged an official complaint charging the Christians with forced conversions.
When three Christian women arrived at the house to attend a prayer meeting on Friday morning (December 30), the extremists slapped them and pulled their hair, warning them not to attend any more services. They also slapped church member Samraj Rai, who had come to warn the women, and damaged his motorbike.
Fearing further violence, the victims did not go home but stayed with friends that night.
A delegation of church members went to the Umarkote police station on Saturday (December 31) to lodge a written complaint. The police accepted the document but would not register an official complaint.
Inspector Narayan Chand Barik told Compass that he had "received a complaint from the villagers saying that people in the house church were disturbing the temple. But I have not received a complaint from the Christians."
Barik also said he had discovered that some of the church members had not informed district authorities before they converted to Christianity. Prior notification of conversion is required under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act of 1967 and the Orissa Freedom of Religion Rules appended to the Act in 1989.
"Why is there a church if there are no Christians?" Barik said. "And if there are Christians, why haven’t they fulfilled the requirements of the law?"
When asked if the construction of the Hindu temple on public land was legal, he answered, "This is their traditional way of worshipping their god."
Temple Under a Tree
Roots of the dispute go back to October 2005, when Umarkote villager Govind Nath set up a photo of a Hindu god under a tree about 50 meters from the house church, mission supervisor Chaitanya Nayak told Compass. Neighbors say Nath is a member of the Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Two weeks later, Nath put a statue under the tree. A little later he built a small cement structure there and declared it to be a temple.
"Every Sunday morning after that, the temple started using loudspeakers for religious programs which disturbed the church," Nayak said. "But we did not object to it, since we felt they also had a right to worship."
On Thursday (December 29), Nath lodged a complaint with police, alleging that the church was disturbing temple worship and that its members were forcibly converting local residents.
Later that day, police summoned home-owner Tirinath Nag and Pastor Jacob Khare and interrogated them for more than five hours at the police station.
Unaware of these developments, the three Christian women went to Nag's house the next day for prayer and fasting and were attacked.
As a result of a meeting at the police station yesterday (January 3), police said they would allow the Hindu temple built on public land to continue to function. The Christians, however, were banned from holding services in Nag's house. Inspector Barik said the Christians could meet at the home only for prayer - not for worship, preaching, or any other church-related activity.
At the meeting, he also asked both parties not to insult each other's religious sentiments and not to use loudspeakers without prior permission from the other party.
Regarding the extremists' charge that the Christians did not register their conversions, the Rev. Dr. D.B. Hrudaya said that some believers avoid public declarations of conversion because of lengthy and complicated procedures required by the state.
Under current laws, would-be converts must give a declaration of intent to a Magistrate. The police then check for any objections from family, friends or neighbors before the conversion is officially registered.
"Those who do get baptized and send a declaration to the district authorities are harassed by Hindu fundamentalists, who somehow get the information," said Hrudaya, who represents a local chapter of the All India Christian Council. "It is a difficult situation for new converts."
The state government ordered more stringent enforcement of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act in July 2005, following similar religious disputes. (See Compass Direct, "Hindu fundamentalists allege 'Forced Conversion,'" July 28, 2005.)