By BosNewsLife Asia Service with a Special BosNewsLife Correspondent reporting from the region
BHUBANESWAR, INDIA (BosNewsLife) -- Fearing violence, many Christians in India's volatile state of Orissa will for the first time in their history not celebrate Christmas but instead mourn victims of recent anti-Christian attacks, which killed dozens, and those who died in shootings in Mumbai, a priest told BosNewsLife, Saturday, December 13.
"Except for the Holy Mass, nothing else will be there," said the priest, Frederick Santhumayor, who is also a social activist and professor of Theology. "Our people are not going to buy traditional clothes and are not going to make Christmas decorations," he added.
In addition, he said, "Our Society of Divine Word religious congregationâ€™s Christmas gathering is canceled for the first time in our 61-year history in Orissa."
There wonâ€™t be a 'Midnight Mass' either. Instead, Christmas Midnight Mass will be held already at 1400 hours local time on December 24 in most places of Orissa, church officials said, amid apparent death threats.
"Our enemies, the hard-line Hindu fanatics, have threatened to call Orissa-wide strikes on Christmas Day. All those who come for Mass will therefore reach home before sunset on December 24," Santhumayor added. He said he asked Christians to "Please pray for the Church in Orissa."
It came as Orissa's government tried to ensure European Union diplomats that it would protect minority Christians, following months of attacks against the state's embattled Christian community, which left over 40 people dead. It has spread to other states, including Karnataka. While not directly related, Christians were also among the 179 dead during the November 26-29 shootings in Mumbai, linked to Islamist militants, Christian aid workers said.
The large scale anti-Christian violence began in Orissa following the August 23 killing in the state of an influential Hindu religious leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his followers.
Maoist rebels claimed responsibility, but Hindu militants blamed Christians, sparking the riots. Orissa Home Secretary Aditya Prasad Padhi said that in response to the violence, some 3,800 security forces have been deployed in Kandhamal, the district where most of the clashes occurred.
He made the comments after EU officials visiting the region urged the state government to be "extra careful" during the planned Hindu strike on Christmas Day, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported Saturday, December 13.
Activists of the Hindu nationalist group Sangh Parivar have said they will go ahead with a December 25 shutdown of businesses, "unless the killers of the Hindu leader and conspirators are detained."
Their threats have been linked to religious tensions in Orissa, where about three percent of the state's roughly 40 million people are Christians, many of them devout converts from Hinduism, according to official Christian estimates.
Christians are prime targets of Hindu nationalist campaigners, eager to swell their ranks and increase their influence, church activists and independent observers say.
To counter the spread of Christianity and Christian missionaries, militants of groups such as Sangh Parivar have attacked the state's Christian community, according to local church leaders. For outsiders it is often difficult to reach the flash points, deep inside the thickly forested hills of eastern India, where ancient tribes, and many Christians, live in huts of grass-and-mud, cut off from modernity
Across India's remote tribal belt, a zone of Christian missionary activity for decades, the activists have also been involved in converting tribes to Hinduism and creating foot soldiers for Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, the main political party representing India's Hindu nationalist groups.
"The BJP is performing well in tribal-belt because of the good work done by the Sangh Parivar," Jual Oram, BJP's vice-president and a tribal parliamentarian, told Reuters news agency, referring to the Hindu revivalist movement set up partly to counter Christian missionaries.
Local Church leaders say Hindu extremists have even forced Christians, under threat of death, to "convert" to Hinduism. Christians are reportedly only allowed to stay in their homes in Kandhamal district if they become Hindu.
In one of the latest known incidents, Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered November 25 in the district's Dobali village where she was staying with a friend, said the Evangelical Fellowship of India group in published remarks. She had apparently returned to the village from a refugee camp on November 21, and four days later was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered.
More attacks are expected, EU diplomats were told by representatives of Orissa's Christian community, during their three-day tour of the state.
The team of diplomats comprised Second Secretary of British High Commission Ruth Wills, First Secretary of Italian Embassy Gabriele Annis, Deputy Head of Mission from Irish Embassy Pat Bourne, Second Secretary of Netherlands embassy Bart Paans and Deputy Head of Mission from Finland Embassy Lissa Valijento, PTI reported. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)
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