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Compass (12/15/05) – As Catholic believers across India gather to celebrate the birth of Jesus, many will carry physical or emotional scars as a result of attacks launched by Hindu extremists over the past year.

Many incidents of violence against both Catholics and Protestants went unreported, since the police often refused to record the victims’ complaints, but by last June the number of violent attacks recorded by Christian organizations had reached over 200. This number was expected to double by year’s end. Catholics, who make up about 29 percent of Christians in India according to Operation World, were often targeted in these attacks.

“This year Hindu extremists have beaten our priests, assaulted our nuns, broken crosses and urinated on sacred vessels,” said Dr. John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union. “These acts of desecration show the true nature of the attackers.”

Attacks were reported in Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and the states of tribal central India .

“We also have reports of attacks on Catholic clergy from West Bengal in the east to Andhra Pradesh in south central India ,” Dayal said.

Desecration of religious objects is common in such attacks. Police, however, often ignore the religious aspects of a complaint because of the legal implications.

“Indian law has specific provisions against actions that sow seeds of hatred between communities,” Dayal explained. “We also have laws against violence directed at a specific religious or other minority group. Still other laws come into operation if the victims are Dalits.”

In several cases of religiously-motivated violence this year, police have refused to record a “First Information Report,” leaving the victims with no legal means to pursue their complaints. In other cases, desecration of religious objects is recorded only as petty crime or theft.

Rajasthan has the highest number of recorded incidents. In February, Rajasthan’s state government announced plans to adopt anti-conversion legislation, echoing laws already in force in Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Arunachal Pradesh.

Gujarat state passed a similar law in March 2003, but the law has not yet been enforced.

The Rev. Dr. Babu Joseph, director of communications and spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told Compass the total number of violent incidents reported had declined over the past year.

“This is partly due to the change of government in 2004, and its policies of inclusiveness … which have given a better sense of security to those who suffered harassment,” Joseph claimed.

Other Christian leaders rejected Joseph’s claim of decreasing religious violence, but all agree that anti-Christian violence surged after the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won federal elections held in 1998. The BJP government was ousted by a Congress Party-led coalition in new elections held in April 2004.

Joseph admitted that the situation is still far from ideal.

“As the spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, I ardently hope that the new year will see a positive change in the social scenario of India , [so that] people of all religions, cultures and castes can find an honorable place to live and develop as equal citizens of our beloved India .”

For his part, Dayal has issued a call for all church groups to work together in combating violence.

“We must not accuse each other of attracting violence from extremist groups,” he told Compass. “Instead we must teach our groups, both Catholics and Protestant, to be more culturally sensitive and to exercise common sense.”

But once an attack has taken place, he said, it must be recognized as a crime that should be denounced and punished.

The most recent attack occurred on December 12, when Hindu extremists forced more than 40 Dalit Catholic families in Raipur district of Chattisgarh state to convert to Hinduism.

The villagers were threatened with loss of employment and Dalit social benefits if they refused.

Other examples of persecution of Catholic churches or individuals in 2005 include (alphabetically, by state):

* In Assam state on September 2, armed assailants murdered Mgr. Nellickal, vicar-general of Tejpur diocese, on church premises.

* In Delhi on May 23, vandals set fire to St. Mary’s church complex in Sabhapur, 150 kilometers (about 93 miles) outside Delhi . They set fire to records in the director’s office and destroyed 200 textbooks and 1,000 new diaries intended for students. “There was nothing left in the rooms except the tables,” said one tribal sister who taught at the school.

* In Jharkhand state on September 13, a tribal Catholic priest identified only as Father Agnos was murdered during a peaceful demonstration for tribal rights. A mob of some 40 Hindu extremists armed with knives, arrows and swords stormed the rally and attempted to disperse the 3,500 demonstrators. Fr. Agnos was stabbed in the back and bled to death.

* In Kerala state on October 17, four unidentified men armed with wooden sticks attacked the home of Bishop Vincent Samuel in Neyyatinkara. Attackers had destroyed the windows and were about to break in when a police patrol arrived. A security guard was injured in the attack, and three vehicles were damaged.

* In Maharashtra on January 23, armed extremists attacked the Teresian Carmelites Convent, which runs a home for the elderly in a suburb of Mumbai. The door and cross were smashed. Pamphlets left by the attackers encouraged the nuns to “Run away – or we will come back. This country is ours. Now it is the cross; the next time it will be your heads.”

* In Manipur on April 19, a mob of 200 extremists armed with sickles and torches set fire to a Catholic church in Lamding village.

* In Rajasthan on June 9, mobs of extremists attacked two Catholic convents; on June 11, a mob attacked a third convent and held the nuns captive overnight; on June 12, extremists broke into the Holy Trinity Church in Jaipur, capital of Rajasthan, and threw rotten eggs and blue-colored water at a shrine dedicated to the infant Jesus.

* October 16 [in Rajasthan state], members of the Hindu extremist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) accused Catholics holding a procession of planning forced conversions among tribal people in Udaipur district. Bishop Joseph Pathalil’s car was pelted with stones as he left the procession, but he escaped unharmed.

* Also in Udaipur district, on October 25 five nuns waiting at a bus stop were beaten with sticks.

* In West Bengal on February 12, police arrested 81-year-old Father. Luciano Colussi, vicar-general of Krishnagar, giving no reason or explanation for his arrest.