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Church Groups Mull Joint Action To Aid Orissa Victims, Face Future

10/10/08 NEW DELHI (UCAN) — Catholic, Protestant and Evangelical leaders came together in New Delhi to explore ways of getting relief and rehabilitation aid to victims of anti-Christian violence in Orissa.

About 75 leaders from various Churches and denominations met on Oct. 7 under the banner of National United Christian Forum, a joint body comprising the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), National Council of Churches in India (NCCI) and Evangelical Fellowship of India.

NCCI president Bishop Taranath Sagar told UCA News the violence against Christians threatens the future of India as a secular nation. The Churches’ took this new initiative, the Protestant prelate added, “not only to save Christians but also the secular fabric of our nation.”

Bishop Sagar said their meeting discussed various ways to bring aid to an estimated 20,000 victims now living in government-run relief camps. Thousands of homeless people are also reported to be hiding in forests.

The sustained violence, now running into its seventh week, has killed at least 52 people. Hindu extremists have also burned down 4,500 houses, 100 churches and 20 convents, as well as presbyteries and other Church institutions. About 50,000 people have been rendered homeless.

The violence began on Aug. 24, the day after a Hindu leader who opposed conversions to Christianity and four of his associates were killed. Even though a Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killings, Hindu radical groups blamed the murder on Christians.

“We doubt Christians can live without fear in India,” Bishop Sagar said, adding that the situation demands the government restrict Hindu fanatical organizations from “spreading poison of hatred.”

The meeting discussed joint efforts to get help to the victims. It also discussed improving Christian media and networking, engaging civil society and the preparedness of the Churches to face such events in future.

Reverend Raj Bharat Patta, who heads NCCI’s office for dalit and tribal people, told UCA News the meeting agreed to “deal with the situation in a united way.” Dalit is a Sanskrit term used to refer to people of former untouchable classes.

Participants resolved to spread awareness of people’s rights and join hands with other social organizations to denounce the atrocities against economically and socially poor people, he said.

In another meeting on Oct. 8, representatives of national Christian social-service organizations framed long-term and short-term relief and rehabilitation plans.

Bishop Sagar said the relief agencies including the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief (EFICOR), Caritas India, Catholic Relief Services and Church’s Auxiliary for Social Action, a Protestant agency, will work jointly to mobilize resources for relief and rehabilitation of the victims.

Caritas India director Father Varghese Mattamana, who attended the meeting, told UCA News the Christian volunteer organizations decided to jointly prepare plans for rehabilitation and relief work.

The Catholic priest said the Orissa state government has given permission for them to provide medical services in three relief camps. The priest added they are awaiting further permission to provide non-food materials such as blankets, mats, toiletries and utensils in the camps.

The Church groups, Father Mattamana said, plan to help some 6,000 families in the relief camps, providing each family with materials worth 2,000 rupees (US$41). Caritas’ office in Bhubaneswar will be the hub for the relief effort. “The work will start as soon as we get permission,” he added. The state capital city is some 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi.

Father Mattamana said they also plan to provide “a kit” to each family that wants to leave the relief camps and go back to their village. The kit would have materials like kitchen utensils and cloth for immediate needs.

Sanjeev Bhanja, EFICOR’s director of programs, told UCA News the six major Christian NGOs will work through the government. Their main area of operation will be Kandhamal district, some 350 kilometers west of Bhubaneswar, where the violence has been concentrated.