Kidnapped Christian Leader Still Missing in India

Friday, March 17, 2006

Church leaders fear capture of pastor may set an ominous precedent.
by Nirmala Carvalho

MUMBAI, March 16 (Compass) -- The Rev. Tongkhojang Lunkim is still missing two months after a rebel army in Northeast India kidnapped the administrative secretary of the Kuki Christian Church (KCC) on January 17, and relatives fear for his safety.

Besides his involvement with the KCC – a collective of hundreds of churches in Northeast India, Burma and Bhutan – Rev. Lunkim was chief of his village in Manipur state and chairman of the Kuki Movement for Human Rights.

He also edited several indigenous language versions of the Upper Room Daily Devotional Guide, a publication of the United Methodist Church of the United States.

Rev. Lunkim’s kidnappers, the Kuki Liberation Army (KLA), have reportedly demanded a ransom of 10 million rupees (US$224,796). The KLA is one of several insurgent groups fighting for independent territories in the region; the Indian government has stationed troops in Manipur to oppose the KLA and similar organizations.

The KLA also kidnapped Rev. Lunkim’s son in 2003 but released him without a ransom payment.

Prior to his own kidnapping, Rev. Lunkim had told Upper Room staff in the United States that militants were increasingly active in the region.

The Rev. Stephen Bryant, senior international editor and publisher of the Upper Room devotional, said Rev. Lunkim’s kidnapping was clearly linked to his Christian work.

“Lunkim has lived with threats and danger ever since Christ called him,” Bryant told the United Methodist News service. “But he has persevered in the ministry, with unflagging passion for his people.”

Monetary Motive

But Sub-Inspector Khundogbam Kesho of the local Imphal police station in Manipur said the kidnapping had “nothing to do with religion.”

Kesho said the KLA was interested in a sum of 900,000 rupees (US$20,231) that the Indian government had allegedly given Rev. Lunkim for peace negotiations between the KLA and the Indian army.

An investigation by various Kuki organizations before the kidnapping, however, found there was no truth to these allegations.

When asked if the police planned to help Rev. Lunkim, Inspector Kesho said he had increased security measures in the valley to prevent any further deterioration in the “law and order situation.”

On February 16, Rev. Lunkim’s wife pleaded with local authorities to intervene, saying her husband was innocent and did not deserve “physical and mental torture at the hands of the KLA.”

Political Motive

Father Cedric Prakash, director of the Center for Human Rights, Justice and Peace in Ahmedabad, and official spokesperson for the United Christian Forum for Human Rights in Gujarat state, said the kidnapping was both a political and a religious issue.

“The Kukis consider themselves a Christian tribe, so it is not easy to separate the two realities,” Fr. Prakash said. “The political parties see the kidnapping of Rev. Lunkim as a political issue only, but his powerful influence as a Christian leader cannot be overlooked.”

Fr. Prakash also said Hindu extremists were increasingly active in Northeast India. “The easiest way for them to establish their identity is to go Christian bashing and to persecute as many as possible.”

John Dayal, president of the All India Catholic Union (AICU), said the presence of a Christian majority in the political hotbed of the Northeast is one of the most misunderstood factors in Indian politics.

“Hindu fundamentalist parties such as the Bharatiya Janata Party have accused the Christians of the northeast as being a threat to the unity and integrity of the Indian nation,” Dayal explained.

Dayal agreed that Rev. Lunkim was a natural target because of his leadership position and involvement in peace negotiations.

The Rev. Babu Joseph, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, said the kidnapping of Lunkim could spark off “unwarranted social tension” and set an unfortunate precedent for insurgents and Hindu extremists, especially if the ransom is paid.

“Our country can ill-afford this type of disharmony in the Northeast, when we are already fighting divisive [communal] forces in other parts of India,” Joseph added.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct