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Orissa Vetoes Hindu Radicals’ Strike On Christmas Day, But Church Apprehensive

12/17/08 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) — The government in violence-hit Orissa says it will not allow a general strike on Christmas Day, but Church leaders are apprehensive since Hindu radicals are determined to go ahead with the plan.

Faced with threats, churches in this eastern Indian state have decided not to have midnight programs on Christmas Eve, and no elaborate celebrations at all, Church people told UCA News.

“A peaceful Christmas? Well, we will have to wait and see,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told UCA News on Dec. 16, after reports of the state’s decision on the strike.

“We have heard many such assurances. We need concrete steps,” said the prelate who is based in the state capital of Bhubaneswar, 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. His archdiocese covers Kandhamal district, the focal point of seven weeks of violence that Hindu extremists waged against Christians beginning on Aug. 24.

News reports had said Orissa Chief Minster Naveen Patnaik told the state legislative assembly on Dec. 15 that his government would not allow any strike on Christmas Day.

“I would like to categorically say that no bandh (general closure) will be permitted on that day (Dec. 25) in our state, and the government will come down heavily on anyone who tries to create violence,” an Indian news agency quoted Patnaik as saying.

Hindu radical groups had called for a statewide strike on Christmas Day to seek justice in the Aug. 23 murder of Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal. Although Maoists have claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu radicals blame Christian missioners.

Violence they launched the day after the murder went on for seven weeks, killing at least 60 people, mostly Christians, destroying thousands of homes and displacing 50,000 people.

A day after Patnaik’s statement, a Hindu group announced at a press conference in Bhubaneswar it was determined to go ahead with the strike.

“It is a worrying situation,” said Father Philip Joseph, who coordinates the Church’s social service work in Orissa. He told UCA News on Dec. 17 the state has no government order or law banning such a strike, as some other states do.

“Any group can legally call for a bandh,” Father Joseph pointed out. He explained there would be no problem if people peacefully and voluntarily shut down businesses and activities in protest. However, Hindu fanatics normally call such strikes “to create a chance to shut down everything and do whatever they want to do,” he added. “That is why we are worried.”

The priest also said Church people and secular groups expect the government to counter the strike by imposing prohibitory orders, maybe a curfew, and deploying more security forces in sensitive areas.

Archdiocesan sources said Christian leaders would meet the chief minister on Dec. 18 to urge him to take “practical steps” to ensure a peaceful Christmas.

Father Joseph said “a curfew-like situation” already exists in Kandhamal, with thousands of violence-affected people still living in fear in relief camps. “We cannot freely move to the area,” he said, adding police continue to check visitors’ identity to block troublemakers.

Parishes across the state will “conclude all Christmas programs by the evening of Dec. 24,” he said. “We will not have midnight Masses and will have only a few morning Masses on Christmas Day.”

Father Joseph clarified the Church has not taken any “official decision” on the matter. “That is the general trend,” he said, because “we don’t’ want to expose our people to danger.”

Some Christian leaders told UCA News they are happy with the state decision. “This was what we wanted,” said B.D. Das of the Church of North India.

Das, a practicing lawyer, said he has information the state has already started “preventive detention” of people it suspects could create trouble.

Meanwhile, the situation of Christians in relief camps remains worrisome.

Chita Behera, a lawyer and social worker at a camp in G. Udayagiri, told UCA News government camp officials treat Christians “harshly.” They have little food and poor sanitary facilities, he reported.

Another social worker, Sailabala Behera of the National Woman’s Alliance, said some people entered a camp and took away young women. The women, who were offered jobs, are now untraceable, she said, and her group suspects they were sold into the sex trade.