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Orissa Government Cites Secularism In Refusing To Compensate For Demolished Churches

10/21/08 NEW DELHI (UCAN) — The government of violence-hit Orissa state has refused to compensate for destroyed churches in the eastern Indian state, saying such a move would violate the country’s secular policies.

The Orissa state government advanced this argument in an Oct. 20 affidavit to the Supreme Court, which is hearing a plea seeking compensation for about 100 churches and prayer halls destroyed in Hindu radical violence against Christians.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar filed the plea to seek 30 million rupees (US$612,445) in compensation to help rebuild churches and places of worship destroyed during rioting that began on Aug. 24.

Seven weeks of sustained violence claimed at least 58 lives and rendered about 50,000 people homeless. Hindu extremists also burned down 4,500 houses, convents, presbyteries and other Church institutions.

The Orissa government’s refusal came two days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised financial help to rebuild the churches when he met with Reverend Samuel Kobia, who had called on him. The general secretary of the World Council of Churches revealed the promise at a press conference in New Delhi after the Oct. 18 meeting.

The Orissa affidavit by Tarun Kanti Mishra, the state government’s principal secretary, said: “It is against the secular policy of the State to pay any compensation to religious institutions.”

It also said Archbishop Cheenath’s demand was “not acceptable” to the state, and that the violence, concentrated in Kandhamal district, reflected ethnic discord rather than religion.

The affidavit maintained the “unfortunate killing” of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati sparked violence between Kandha tribal people and Christians of the socially poor Pana caste.

A Maoist group claimed responsibility for the killings of the Hindu leader, who opposed conversions to Christianity, and his four associates. However, Hindu radical groups blamed the murder on Christians.

Without naming Christianity, the affidavit said the ethnic divide among these communities had widened because of conversion of a large number of Pana people “to a different religious community.” It also said Maoist activities in the area “added another dimension to the already complicated situation.”

The affidavit ruled out an inquiry by the federal Central Bureau of Investigation into the case of a nun who reported being raped when a mob attacked her and a priest on Aug. 25.

Citing the state’s ongoing special police investigation, the affidavit said the police had made substantial progress in arresting eight people in the case. It also denied allegations that the police had delayed filing the case. Church leaders have demanded a federal probe.

Meanwhile, Betticola parish in Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese filed a suit demanding 500 million rupees in compensation from a Hindu organization for defaming it.

In the petition, the parish council members said Hindu Jagaran Manch (front to awaken Hindus) forged documents and signatures to accuse Catholics of holding a meeting to plot the killing of Swami Saraswati. Hindu radicals allegedly distributed the forged documents at a press conference on Oct.9.

Christian leaders say their people are under attack and harassment in the state, which is now ruled by a coalition of a regional party and the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people’s party). The BJP is the political wing of groups trying to make India a Hindu theocratic state.