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Confusion Continues About Deaths In Orissa’s Anti-Christian Violence

ICC Note: We have been following the situation in Orissa closely, and this article shows the reason for why different reports and counts have gone out about what exactly happened during the Christmas attacks on Christians. Many Christians are still reported missing, and the state police have prevented fact-finding teams from visiting the district where the violence occurred.

1/2/08 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) — Church people in violence-affected Orissa state, eastern India, say they are not yet sure how many people died in bloodshed that began on Christmas Eve.

Based on reports from Church sources, UCA News reported on Dec. 28 that nine Christians were killed. But on Dec. 31 the sources said they could confirm only five fatalities, possibly not all Christians.

“We still do not have an official account of how many people have died in police firing, mob violence or other injuries sustained during the last one week,” said a statement from a fact-finding team that visited Kandhamal district, where the violence occurred. The team included peace activist and filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt, All India Catholic Union president John Dayal and Maharashtra Minorities Commission vice chairman Abraham Mathai.

“Many people, including young women, are still reported missing. We have no account, and neither do we know if the police have tried to search for them and assure their safety,” the Jan. 1 statement said.

The team also held a press conference in Bhubaneswar, the Orissa capital, 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. Police denied Dayal and others permission to go to interior areas of Kandhamal district.

The violence began on Dec. 24, when a Hindu mob attacked a tent displaying the nativity scene that Christians of various denominations jointly put up in the district’s Bamunigam town, 335 kilometers southwest of Bhubaneswar.

In four days of violence, Hindu radicals attacked and destroyed at least 50 village churches, six convents, three presbyteries, six hostels, two seminaries and a vocational training center, and at least 400 houses, Church leaders said on Dec. 31. They addressed a press conference at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India headquarters in New Delhi.

“I can confirm five deaths,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, head of the Catholic Church in Orissa, told reporters. He said he did not know how many of the dead were Christians.

Quoting police sources, a Church source subsequently told UCA News that of the dead, four were Christians. He said the district continues to be tense.

The Church source explained that the confusion over the number of dead was caused after a police official who told him that seven people were killed in Barakhama village alone later told him this number had proved incorrect.

According to the source, the police official explained that some people with “vested interests” had covered logs with white cloths, as is traditionally done with dead bodies, to give the impression that more people were killed.

The Church source said “other people” also reported news of more deaths in Barakhama. “That’s why I had reported it to the press. Now I have confirmed with official sources that so far four Christians have died. But many are missing,” he said.

The fact-finding team reported in its statement that “Christians have been arrested, we learn, but there is no official word on it.” Conversely, troublemakers seem “to have a free hand in the entire district despite night curfew.”

The team also noted that no Church group has been allowed to visit the area, and therefore Christian leaders were unable even to “provide psychological support to the traumatized victims.” Senior Christian leaders who had reached Phulbani, the district headquarters, were “expelled under police escort and prevented from talking to victims,” the report asserted.

The government reportedly began distributing relief material, but in many villages, officials reportedly were not giving relief to women. “The women are asked to come back with their husbands or sons. We fear it may be a ruse to arrest the men folk,” the fact-finding team said in the state capital.

It also said Christians who were guarding churches and institutions from anti-Christian elements “are being harassed and taken away by the police,” adding that “there is no account of these young men.” … [UCAN Website]