Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Kandhamal Christians under ‘threat’ to convert

The anti-Christian flame in Kandhamal may have become dimmer for a while, but it is far from blown out. Fuelling it is the issue of conversion, which has become a determinant of people’s lives in this part of the country.

Several Christians in 11 blocks of the tribal districts are said to have been “forcibly converted” as Hindus in the past 17 days of mayhem; the rest say they are facing a choice between life and faith.

“The radicals have told us that we can live here only as Hindus. They are giving deadlines to people to convert or be prepared to face the worst. They asked my family to fall in line by 8 pm on September 3. When we did not agree to convert, they razed our properties,” Jitender Digal, a refugee at Bijaya High School camp in Raikia block, told The Tribune.

In Kandhamal, minorities furnish proof of how “force and fear” is being used to deter people from their faith. Lalu Naik of Balliguda block shows this correspondent a letter whose text, he says, the radicals have framed for the Christians to follow. Signed by Lalu’s father Babulal Naik and 10 members of his family, the letter reads: “Shrijukta Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) mahodaya (Respected VHP official), I was a Christian until now, but I voluntarily want to embrace Hinduism.”

The sample, claim refugees, is meant to facilitate Christians’ conversion to Hindu religion. Such letters have been floating around for a fortnight, with covert but stern messages to Christians to convert. The first targets in this “war” of conversion are pastors, now hiding in the relief camps by thousands. Three of them - Samuel Naik, Akhar Digal and Dibya Digal from Raikia and Udaygiri blocks - have already lost their lives in the recent violence. In each case, the killers first asked the victims if they were ready to become Hindus, say relatives.

Samuel Naik’s son Ramesh, who witnessed killings of his father and grandmother, recounts, “They gave three warnings to my father. When he refused to abandon his faith, they slaughtered him. My grandmother met the same fate.” Ramesh is now hiding at the G Udaygiri camp, while his mother Upojini Naik is at the Raikia relief camp, where over 200 pastors are seeking refuge.

Among them are Subodh Naik, Bijay Pradhan, Subodh Digal and Ulkeshan Naik, who claim being on the radicals’ hit list. “They want us to join them and prove our loyalty by attacking churches and killing Christians. They have threatened to eliminate us if we don’t listen to them.” Many pastors are missing or feared dead.

As for forcible conversions, they are mostly reported to be happening in G Udaygiri, Raikia, Tikabali, Chakapad and Balliguda blocks, with Christians now demanding a separate district. Ashok Behera, a camper at Tikabali, says, “We want a district with a Christian collector, a Christian SP and a Christian block development officer. We have lost faith in the system as close to 2,000 Christians have been converted.”

VHP leaders for their part remain adamant as ever, claiming they will “do everything possible to protect the Hindu faith in Orissa.” Kabi Chandra Nath, who assumed charge of the Jalaspeta ashram after Laxmananda Saraswati’s death, goes to the extent of defending the radical stand, saying, “We are not converting anyone. We are simply bringing misguided followers back to the fold.” Never mind the cost.

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