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Compass (03/16/06) – The Rev. Tongkhojang Lunkim is still missing two months after a rebel army in Northeast India kidnapped the administrative secretary of the Kuki Christian Church (KCC) on January 17, and relatives fear for his safety.

Besides his involvement with the KCC – a collective of hundreds of churches in Northeast India, Burma and Bhutan – Rev. Lunkim was chief of his village in Manipur state and chairman of the Kuki Movement for Human Rights.

He also edited several indigenous language versions of the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide, a publication of the United Methodist Church of the United States .

Rev. Lunkim’s kidnappers, the Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), have reportedly demanded a ransom of 10 million rupees (US$224,796). The KLA is one of several insurgent groups fighting for independent territories in the region; the Indian government has stationed troops in Manipur to oppose the KLA and similar organizations.

The KLA also kidnapped Rev. Lunkim’s son in 2003 but released him without a ransom payment.

Prior to his own kidnapping, Rev. Lunkim had told Upper Room staff in the United States that militants were increasingly active in the region.

The Rev. Stephen Bryant, senior international editor and publisher of the Upper Room devotional, said Rev. Lunkim’s kidnapping was clearly linked to his Christian work.

“Lunkim has lived with threats and danger ever since Christ called him,” Bryant told the United Methodist News service. “But he has persevered in the ministry, with unflagging passion for his people.”

Monetary Motive

But Sub-Inspector Khundogbam Kesho of the local Imphal police station in Manipur said the kidnapping had “nothing to do with religion.”

Kesho said the KLA was interested in a sum of 900,000 rupees (US$20,231) that the Indian government had allegedly given Rev. Lunkim for peace negotiations between the KLA and the Indian army.

An investigation by various Kuki organizations before the kidnapping, however, found there was no truth to these allegations.

When asked if the police planned to help Rev. Lunkim, Inspector Kesho said he had increased security measures in the valley to prevent any further deterioration in the “law and order situation.”

On February 16, Rev. Lunkim’s wife pleaded with local authorities to intervene, saying her husband was innocent and did not deserve “physical and mental torture at the hands of the KLA.”

Political Motive

Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Ahmedabad, and official spokesperson for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in Gujarat state, said the kidnapping was both a political and a religious issue.

“The Kukis consider themselves a Christian tribe, so it is not easy to separate the two realities,” Fr. Prakash said. “The political parties see the kidnapping of Rev. Lunkim as a political issue only, but his powerful influence as a Christian leader cannot be overlooked.”

Fr. Prakash also said Hindu extremists were increasingly active in Northeast India . “The easiest way for them to establish their identity is to go Christian bashing and to persecute as many as possible.”

John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), said the presence of a Christian majority in the political hotbed of the Northeast is one of the most misunderstood factors in Indian politics.

“Hindu fundamentalist parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party have accused the Christians of the northeast as being a threat to the unity and integrity of the Indian nation,” Dayal explained.

Dayal agreed that Rev. Lunkim was a natural target because of his leadership position and involvement in peace negotiations.

The Rev. Babu Joseph, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the kidnapping of Lunkim could spark off “unwarranted social tension” and set an unfortunate precedent for insurgents and Hindu extremists, especially if the ransom is paid.

“Our country can ill-afford this type of disharmony in the Northeast, when we are already fighting divisive [communal] forces in other parts of India ,” Joseph added.

SIDEBAR

The seven states of Northeast India – Arunachal Pradesh , Assam , Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Nagaland and Tripura – are joined to the rest of India by a thin strip of land, with Nepal to the north and Bangladesh to the south.

Collectively known as the “Seven Sisters,” the states are a political hotbed, with many ethnic rebel groups fighting for independence from the Indian government.

Since Christians form a majority in the region, Hindu extremists and other external observers have assumed that churches support the insurgency.

Compass spoke with Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace (Prashant) in Ahmedabad , India , and official spokesperson for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in Gujarat state, about the role of the church in Northeast India .

Q. What role, if any, have churches taken in the various insurgencies?

A. At the outset, we need to understand the concept of “church” in the Northeast. In some of the seven states there are high percentages of Christians. These Christians belong to mainline church denominations and also to some smaller, lesser-known churches. The churches cannot support the insurgents, but they definitely sympathize with the legitimate grievances of the tribal people.

Q. Do churches support any of the rebel armies?

A. I am sure that there is no explicit support of the rebel armies. Many of the insurgents come from Christian backgrounds, however, so in that sense there is a link – but the fighting is not endorsed by the church.

Q. Has the church in general made any attempts to bring peace to the region?

A. I don’t think it’s possible for any church group to remain neutral in the Northeast. The situation is so complex that one is forced to take sides at some level or the other. Certainly, many church groups and individuals have made attempts to bring peace. I personally have been involved in a program called “Local Capacities for Peace,” which has tried to work with 35 groups – mainly church-based groups and NGOs – to cut across ethnic divides. While we have not seen all-round success, people are definitely collaborating more in common social programs.

To ensure real peace, political decisions have to be made to ensure that the people of the Northeast no longer feel mistreated by the Indian government.

Q. Has the conflict directly contributed to persecution of Christians?

A. It’s difficult to say. On the one hand, not all Kukis are Christians, but they all stick together in the fight against Naga domination. So in reality you may have a Naga Baptist Christian on one side of the divide and a Kuki Baptist Christian on the other.

Marxist outfits have also attacked Christians in the past.

Q. Are Christians in the Northeast persecuted for any other reason besides the insurgency? That is, through social discrimination, or opposition from Hindu extremist groups?

A. Lately there has been an upsurge in the activity of Hindu extremists in the Northeast, especially in the states of Arunachal and Tripura, where there is a high concentration of Christians.