04/21/2010, 00.00
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New acquittals for people who attacked Christians in Orissa

by Nirmala Carvalho
Fr Edward Sequeira, a Verbite priest who saw anti-Christian violence firsthand and was almost burnt to death during the 2008 pogrom, tells AsiaNews that a big organisation is working against Christians. He is certain that the Church will return to the areas where its institutions have been laid waste. The archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar says the Church is ready to appeal the acquittals.
Kandhamal (AsiaNews) – A court in Orissa acquitted five Hindu extremists charged with attacking Christians in Orissa and ordered the release of 17 more for lack of evidence. Speaking to AsiaNews, Verbite priest Edward Sequeira said, “Kandhamal is still simmering with communal tension and hostilities. Many of our people have not gone back as they are afraid that they will inevitably be forced to go back to Hinduism.” However, the clergyman, who experienced firsthand the violent pogrom when he was almost burnt alive (see Nirmala Carvalho, “Fr Edward, survivor of arson in Orissa: the Hindu radicals are terrorists,” in AsiaNews, 4 September 2009), said that he was “going back to his lepers” because “they need the love of the Church.” Currently, the priest lives in a parish on the outer edge of the district.

“Thousands of people are still displaced, living in shanties outside the district,” he said. “Many people have had to go to other states. Getting back to normal appears difficult. Housing is a priority but construction is rather slow. Churches or other facilities are not being rebuilt, and security remains a big issue for Christians.”

At present, health reasons have kept Fr Sequeira away from his community. “I am here under medical advice as my lungs are not improving and my breathing problem still persists,” he said. However, “I am also living here in secret” because of “threats to my life.”

Still, “I make unannounced visits to the leper colony in Padampur,” he added, because “I am willing to risk everything for the lepers; they are the people who most need our services. They are the poorest of the poor and are ostracised by mainstream society. Therefore, I often visit in order to provide them with whatever services I can offer. With love and dignity, the Church has always helped them, all of whom are Hindu.”

As for the most recent verdicts, he said, “In my case, I saw my attackers get out on bail. It must be said but there is a big organisation, powerful, violent and hostile to Christians. It is understandable that witnesses might have second thoughts or become hostile towards the victims. These people have to live every day alongside the people they have to accuse. Other witnesses are simply dismissed by the courts because they are poor or come from the low castes. Even in the courtroom, people can be threatened by rightwing nationalist extremists.”

 “We are deeply concerned about the high rate of acquittals in the Fast Track Courts,” said Mgr Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar. “Church authorities are studying the judgments and investigating into the frequent acquittals. On the merits of our findings, we will appeal to the High Court.”  Altogether, some “3,232 complaints were filed in various police stations in Kandhamal. Of these, the police registered cases in only 832 instances.” Making matters worse, “the whole atmosphere inside and outside the court is communalized”.

“The credibility of those tasked with carrying out investigations is questionable,” said Sajan K Gorge, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians. “Rightwing ideology is deeply ingrained in local officials. Only 89 people have been convicted so far, against as many as 251 who have been acquitted and set free for lack of witnesses.”

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