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Catholic Layman Continues Hunger Strike To Press For Peace In Orissa

12/18/08 India (UCAN) – A Catholic on hunger strike to force government action for peace in Orissa has refused food even after police took him to hospital.

Police brought Rajiv Joseph to the hospital on Dec. 18, eight days after he began his “hunger strike until success or death” on Human Rights Day.

After returning to his cloth canopy on the roadside, he assured UCA News, “I’m physically fit, and I’ll continue fasting.” His spot is in an area set aside for public protests, about two kilometers from the Indian parliament.

Joseph said he has consumed only water since he began fasting and police merely followed normal procedure by taking him to hospital to make sure he is not about to die. However, the layman added, doctors at the hospital declared him physically fit, so police could not keep him there.

Among other things, the Catholic, who is president of Indian Minority Front, a political party he launched a month ago, is demanding that more security forces be sent to Orissa state, eastern India, where he said Christians remain afraid after Hindu fanatics attacked them for seven weeks, starting Aug. 24.

That violence left at least 60 people dead and more than 50,000 displaced. Thousands of Christians still live in government-run relief camps or elsewhere far from home for fear of being attacked if they return to their villages.

Joseph also wants the government to block a general strike Hindu radical groups have called in the state for Christmas Day. He also insists state and federal governments start projects to rehabilitate victims of the violence.

Federal government leaders have asked him to end the strike and promised to meet his demands, Joseph said, “but I need action, not promises.”

He pointed out to UCA News earlier, on Dec. 15, that the government had promised measures to stop the violence when it began but failed to act, and such inaction indirectly helps fanatics. The government also promised several rehabilitation packages but none have yet been implemented, he added.

“The double-talk” of state and federal governments regarding the Orissa violence, he explained, forced people of minority faith communities to form the new party. Though he sat alone in his tent, Joseph insisted that Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Zoroastrians and some political organizations are backing his hunger strike.

Since Joseph’s hunger strike began, about 30 Catholic priests and 20 nuns have visited him “unofficially.” However, Divine Word Father Babu Joseph, spokesperson of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, told UCA News on Dec. 17 that the Catholic Church “fully supports his act of care and concern for the people of Orissa, especially the Christians.”

“It is a noble way of protesting and helping fellow brethren in their distress,” Father Joseph remarked. Moreover, going on hunger strike, a non-violent method popularized by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, is “the best way to express strong disagreement with the government,” he said.

John Dayal, president of All India Catholic Union, told UCA News that Joseph’s gesture should be appreciated. “We thank him for his concern for the people of Orissa,” the layman said.