04/17/2009, 00.00
INDIA
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Orissa: Christians in refugee camps vote but they are just a minority of all displaces people

by Nirmala Carvalho
The situation is calm in Kandhamal, the Orissa district most affected by Hindu violence. Tight security measures and the timely provision of identity papers allow Christians in refugee camps to cast their ballot. However, another 51,000 displaced Christians who are not in such camps have not been able to vote. Bhubaneswar bishop is “satisfied by the election process”, but stresses that ‘in the villages BJP supporters have threatened to expel Christians if they do not vote for their party.”
Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) – “I am satisfied of the election process in Kandhamal. There was a massive presence of security forces as promised by the district magistrate and Christians living in refugee camps got the identity papers and protection they needed to vote,” said Mgr Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who spoke to AsiaNews about India’s first day of voting.

Orissa was among the first states called to vote in the month-long process (16 April-13 May). Both the State Assembly and the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, were up for grabs.

In some areas that saw some of the worst anti-Christian violence, voting is scheduled for 23 April in the second round of elections, but in Kandhamal District where the worst incidents occurred and where thousands of Christians are still displaced, voting was completed yesterday.

Here the possibility of attacks and violent demonstrations was high. In the past few months, Monsignor Cheenath had appealed several times to local and federal authorities to ensure the safety of Christians and make sure that they could exercise their right to vote.

Yesterday Maoist guerrillas killed 18 people, including police and election officials, in a series of simultaneous attacks in the so-called “Red Corridor” that runs through the States of the Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Maharashtra Andhra Pradesh and Orissa. But the violence remained circumscribe to small areas and did not prevent the election from taking place peacefully elsewhere.

The calm atmosphere that prevailed yesterday in Kandhamal and the possibility to vote did not dispel Christian apprehension which the local Church, in particular by Archbishop Cheenath, had voiced in the past. Indeed the prelate noted that “in the villages BJP supporters have threatened to expel Christians if they do not vote for their party.”

Father Nithiya, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice, Peace and Development of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, had more to say about the ongoing tensions in the district.

 “A lot has been said about the 90 per cent turnout in the refugee camps, but it is a pity that only refugees in government-run camps voted (3,000 people) without a problem. The same cannot be said for the other 51,000 who could not,” Father Nithiya.

In fact Christians who left Kandhamal District or the State of Orissa because of the anti-Christian pogroms or sought shelter in camps not run by the government remain a problem.

Thousands of people “were not able to exercise their right to vote and are still living in a situation of deprivation and insecurity,” the priest said.

 The “local government and the election commission failed in their duty to create a relaxed atmosphere” in which “each individual could democratically and freely exercise their right to vote in accordance with the principles of the constitution.”

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