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Official stops temple construction at church site

2/23/09 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) — Catholics in Orissa say they are relieved after a top government official stopped the construction of a temple on the premises of a Catholic church that was destroyed by Hindu extremists.

However, they say they want the government to do more for the safety of Christians in the strife-torn eastern Indian state.

Kishan Kumar, collector of Kandhamal district, visited Betticola village after Church groups complained that Hindus were building a temple on the grounds of a local Catholic mission.

Catholics in the state capital Bhubaneswar said the district’s highest government official had stopped construction work at the site. These were only three meters away from the demolished church building, part of the Church mission under Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar commended the collector’s action as a positive step.

“But that is not enough,” the Divine Word prelate added, noting that Christians continue to stay in relief camps while their attackers move around freely. “None of them have been arrested so far. So the crime continues,” he declared.

Betticola parish priest Father Praful Sabhapati said he was happy the collector had acted justly. “However, tension remains in the village and Christians cannot go back to their homes.”

He said all 56 Christian families fled the village soon after anti-Christian violence erupted in the district on Aug. 24, 2008, a day after Maoists killed a Hindu religious leader. The Hindu radicals had blamed Christians for the murder, a charge that Christians denied.

The Betticola church was completely razed to the ground during the violence.

Father Mrutyunjay Digal, the archdiocese’s treasurer originally from Betticola, said he felt relieved after the collector’s move. “I was really worried for my village people who remain in relief camps,” he stated, adding that “I hope and pray that people will return to the village.”

He explained that Christians would have feared returning even more if the temple had been erected.

Father Digal said if the collector had not acted, Hindus in other Christian villages would have been emboldened to build their temples on Church land.

Parish head catechist Teleswar Digal, who is presently staying in a relief camp, said the villagers had written many petitions to the administration to stop the temple construction. “They have taken some action and we are happy,” he stated.

Christians in Orissa, mostly tribal people and farm workers in remote villages, comprise 2.1 percent of the 31 million people in the coastal state.