Orissa Archbishop Welcomes Upcoming Visit by U.S. Commission

( [email protected] ) May 11, 2009 02:54 PM EDT

With the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) scheduled for an official visit to India next month, all eyes are set on Orissa.

Since August, the Christian minority in the east Indian state of Orissa has witnessed large-scale violence with 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions destroyed and more than 50,000 people left homeless.

Although the violence has ebbed down in the state, Christians now face a storm much worse and frightful – the rampant culture of impunity and the government's apathy toward affected victims.

Archbishop of Orissa Raphael Cheenath, who has since been a pillar of support to the Christians there, has expressed hope as the U.S. Commission – a US government-funded agency created to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad – is set to visit Orissa in June.

Cheenath said the Commission can be pivotal in restricting further violence and ensuring the protection of minorities.

He wants the Commission to place pressure on the Indian government to dutifully maintain the rights enshrined in the Constitution.

“If an independent body can force local government to put into practice the provision of the constitution – religious freedom – it would be good for all minorities,” he told Aid to the Church in Need.

In its visit to India, the USCIRF team will try to gain perspective on Indian government’s response to allegations of communal violence in states like Gujarat and Orissa, according to the Press Trust of India news agency.

Msgr. Stanislaus Fernandes, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of India (CBCI), also welcomed the visit and said he hoped it can speed up the "processes of Justice for our Kandhamal Christians and others victims of communal violence."

Violence-stricken Kandhamal, which was the center of violence in Orissa, came to the attention of human rights activists and religious groups, only after the country knuckled under international pressure.

Last year, U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief Asma Jehangir noted a "pervasive climate of fear and intolerance perpetuated by religious mobs" following her visit to the country.

"Organized groups claiming adherence to religious ideologies have unleashed an all-pervasive fear of mob violence. Furthermore, concerns have been raised with regard to the social, economic and educational status of minority communities," Jehangir said in her report during the tenth special session of the U.N. Human Rights Council in March.

The special rapporteur further noted that violence against Christians in Orissa were taken place with "advance preparation and planning."

Indian authorities were urged by the council to step up efforts to prevent communal violence and include measures that can build peace and equal justice in the society.