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Hindu Radicals Cancel Christmas Strike, Orissa Christians Still Uneasy

12/22/08 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) — The Catholic leader in eastern India’s Orissa state says normal Christmas celebrations remain impossible in the state, even after Hindu groups called off a general strike planned for that day.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told UCA News on Dec. 22 that a normal situation means “people gathering in parish churches with their families. That is still not possible here.”

The Divine Word archbishop noted that Hindu groups on Dec. 20 called off a statewide general strike they planned to stage on Christmas Day, Dec. 25.

The latest Hindu move reportedly came after Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik promised to arrest the people responsible for the murder of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, in the state’s Kandhamal district.

His murder on Aug. 23 sparked off seven weeks of anti-Christian violence that killed more than 60 people, mostly Christians, displaced 50,000 people, and destroyed thousands of homes. Most attacks were in Kandhamal district, about 350 kilometers west of Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

The Hindu radical groups that attacked the Christians blamed Christians for the murder, even though Maoists claimed responsibility. The Hindu groups then called for the Dec. 25 strike to seek justice for the Hindu leader’s murder.

Archbishop Cheenath, who is based in Bhubaneswar, 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi and whose archdiocese includes Kandhamal district, said Church people are “happy and slightly relaxed” that Hindu groups have called off the strike. “However, people in Kandhamal are still afraid. Many who had returned to their villages were again fleeing because of the strike call. Several priests are not in their parishes.”

The prelate also spoke of “rumors about armed people sneaking into the villages” to attack Christians on Christmas Day. “That may be just rumors,” he admitted, and “though the strike has been called off, (the Hindu groups) can still create trouble and attack our people.”

“We cannot take chances,” the archbishop cautioned. “Our Hindu friends in villages, well-meaning people, have told us the situation is not safe. They have also asked our priests not to reside in villages during these days.”

He noted that most of the 24 Catholic parishes in Kandhamal will not have midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. He clarified that the six churches that were not attacked may have evening Masses but not midnight Mass, but “I cannot tell you the exact details” because the parishes have not worked it out.

Christmas celebrations will take place in the 11 relief camps where about 11,000 Christians are now taking refuge. “We will have solemn midnight Mass” in those camps with police security, Archbishop Cheenath said.

The state and district administrations have assured security for Christmas celebrations in the camps, particularly after a group of Christian leaders met with Patnaik on Dec. 20. In the wake of renewed fears, the five Christian leaders of various denominations demanded he provide security for Christians.

Meanwhile, Kandhamal district authorities have launched peace-building measures, such as organizing cultural programs and public meetings that stress the need for peace and harmony.

Father Philip Joseph, who coordinates Church social-service activities in the state, told UCA News that people became “much relaxed” after hearing the Hindu groups cancelled the Christmas shutdown. Christians also are relieved that the administration has assured them of help, he added, but “some priests are still apprehensive about safety” in villages.