12/24/2009, 00.00
INDIA
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Peace and forgiveness, two sides of Christmas among Orissa Christians

by Ajay Kumar Singh
The faithful prepare to celebrate Christmas with hope, even after a long period of persecution. The authorities in Kandhamal have promised security and call for “respect and solidarity with Christian communities.” People want to “forget the pain, divisions and the loss of dear ones.”
Kandhamal (AsiaNews) – Two years after experiencing savage persecution, Orissa Christians are preparing to celebrate Christmas with “renewed hope”. Threats from some Hindu fundamentalist groups still hang over them; the memory of the attacks, murders, and homes and churches set on fire are still alive; but the desire to celebrate the birth of Christ, who taught the value of “forgiveness” and the reassurances by law enforcement in Kandhamal district are small signs in favour of “peace and reconciliation”. The first arrests of those responsible for the violence help as well.

The first major attack against the Christian community in Orissa occurred on Christmas Eve 2007.  The pretext was an alleged attack against Swami Laxamananda Saraswati. The final count of that time was eight dead, more than 850 homes set on fire, and people fleeing into the forest in search of safety. Christmas 2008 was even more traumatic because of the anti-Christian pogrom fundamentalist had launched at the end of August right after Swami Laxamananda was murdered. On that occasion, Christians were blamed for his death, which was followed by a series of violent attacks that left hundreds dead, widespread devastation, churches and convents set on fire, and entire villages abandoned.

This year, in conjunction with Christmas, Hindu extremists from the Sangh Parivar are preparing two days of strikes and demonstrations (Bandh) for 24 and 25 December. Activists will carry posters and banners, calling on people to boycott Christmas. Yet the threats will not stop Christians from enjoying the festive season.

Indeed, an “atmosphere of joy” is prevailing among children “who wait impatiently to celebrate,” said Augustine Singh, a lawyer for the victims of the violence.

Of course, problems have not been solved, and for the second year in a row, celebrations will take place in tents because “churches were razed to ground and we had to flee our villages because of threats.”

However, the arrest of Gururam Patra, general secretary of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Kandhamal, and second in command in the pogrom, sent “a strong signal against those who perpetrated the violence and is a ray of hope for the Christian community.”

Fr Manoj Nayak, who coordinates refugee assistance, said “signs of peace and reconciliation” are visible. On 10 December, about “2,000 people, mostly Christians, gathered to celebrate International Human Rights Day.”

Sr Christa, a nun with the Carmelite Sisters of Saint Theresa, said that Jesus is “a sign of peace and reconciliation” and that “we are his messengers.” The world yearns for peace and “forgiveness should be the foundational value of human relations,” she added. “This is what Christ came to teach us so that everyone can recognise God as Father and accept all men and women as brothers and sisters.”

Meanwhile, the authorities in Kandhamal have said that they would provide security and protection to the faithful who will participate in the various Christmas functions. District magistrate Krishen Kumar, who called for a peace meeting last Monday, appealed to everyone to show “respect and solidarity for Christian communities.” At the same time, he increased the deployment of police forces in sensitive areas.

Fr Praful Digal insisted that the community wants “to forget the pain, divisions and the loss of dear ones.” He explained, “We have suffered for Christ and Jesus will ease our suffering. Here we can understand what it means to be born, like Jesus, in a manger, without a home, because we too are homeless, with no place where we can remember Jesus.”

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