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Indian Christians Languish in Slums Amid Intimidation
Anto Akkara
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Tuesday, July 28, 2009
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Catholic Bonita Digal and two daughters walk at the Saliasahi slum in India's Orissa state.
BHUBANESWAR, India (CNS) -- As Rajendra Digal came out of the court July 20 in Phulabani, in India's Orissa state, after testifying in the murder of his father, Konteswar, two youths warned that if he continued to appear in court, he would regret it.

The elder Digal had been pulled from a bus in which he was fleeing to his son in Bhubaneswar Aug. 26, 2008, as Christians in the nearby town of Sankarkole had been threatened by Hindu fundamentalists to forsake their faith.

Nine days later the body of Digal's father was recovered from a stream 27 miles away, along with the bodies of two other Christians who also had been abducted the same day.

"I never thought they would threaten me like this for testifying in my father's killing," Digal told Catholic News Service in an interview at the Saliasahi slum in Bhubaneswar where he had been living even before Hindus ravaged Christian communities in Orissa's Kandhamal district beginning Aug. 23, 2008.

Kandhamal went up in flames following the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, the leader of Hindu nationalist groups in Orissa. Though Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, saying they were punishing the Hindu leader for mixing religion with politics, Hindu groups blamed the murder on Christians, targeting them in orchestrated violence that lasted for weeks.

The carnage and mayhem left more than 90 Christians dead and displaced more than 50,000 Christians. In addition, more than 5,000 Christian homes and 250 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched.

Digal said he has yet to recover from the shock of identifying his father's body after rushing to the spot 150 miles from Bhubaneswar after he saw the shocking visuals of the bodies on television.

Father Dibakar Parichha, public relations officer of the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese and the leader of a legal support group for the Kandhamal victims, told CNS that several witnesses to the killings are being threatened to force them "to turn hostile" in court.

The priest cited the example of the widow and son of a murdered Christian who were kidnapped while leaving a lawyer's office and let go a day later with a stern warning not to testify against the killers in court.

Despite such intimidation, officials in Orissa claim that life has nearly returned to normal in Kandhamal with the number of refugees in relief camps now below 1,000 compared to 25,000 in September 2008 at the peak of the violence.

"But, the reality is that thousands of refugees have not gone back to their villages," Father Ajay Singh, social service director of the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, told CNS.

More than 10,000 Kandhamal Christians are in Bhubaneswar, Orissa's capital. Poor Christians have moved into the city's slums while more affluent people have rented homes, he said.

Father Singh pointed out that others have fled to other cities in Orissa and elsewhere because of continued threats and intimidation.

Catholics Bonita Digal, her farmer husband Raghav, and their four children were forced to flee their village of Tilabangi following the 2008 attacks. The Digals are not related to Rajendra Digal.

Like thousands of hounded Christian families, they first fled to the jungle and then sought refuge at a relief camp at nearby Tikabali. But even there, Bonita Digal said, the family was threatened and moved to another camp at Bhubaneswar.

Four months later, the family decided to return to their village and found that fundamentalists would not let them enter unless they embraced Hinduism.

"They told us that if you want to stay with us, you have to be Hindus. We have to live as Hindus and contribute to temple programs and festivities," Bonita Digal recalled.

Firm in their faith, the family chose to return to the dingy refugee camp at Tikabali, hoping the majority Hindu population in their village eventually would accept them back. Later the family decided to go to Bhubaneswar.

"We thought it would be better for us to leave Kandhamal itself. So, we came here (to the slum) and took this house," Bonita Digal said as two young daughters clutched her sari as she stood in front of the one-room hut she rents for $13 a month. She said her husband was out looking for work.

"We have been Christians for generations and cannot give up our faith for comfortable living," she said.

The family is fortunate enough that two older children have been admitted to church-run hostels, while the younger daughters, ages 6 and 9, enrolled in classes at a Jesuit-run school next to the sprawling slum. The refugee students are enrolled in afternoon classes, which convene after the regular students return home from their morning session.

Jesuit Father Dayanidhi Bisoi, the school's headmaster, told CNS the classes began in June; he said the majority of the nearly 500 students in the new program are from refugee families. Two teachers who fled Kandhamal also have found employment at the school.

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