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Hopes for peace in Orissa

Tim Shenk
June 1, 2009

AKRON, Pa. — Christians in India's Orissa state regard the outcome of April and May general elections as an answer to prayer, according to the Rev. Dr. Bijoy K. Roul, South Asia administrator for the Brethren in Christ Church.

Orissa's Christian minority was the target of widespread attacks in late August 2008, and many Christians blame radical Hindu groups for inciting the violence. The recent elections gave more national parliamentary seats to India's governing Congress Party (CP), which is secular, and fewer seats to the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is associated with Hindu nationalism.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is promoting peace in Orissa by sponsoring workshops on peace and reconciliation and helping local leaders receive specialized training in these areas. MCC is planning to sponsor two Brethren in Christ church leaders from Orissa to attend Henry Martyn Institute, a school of interfaith relations in the Indian city of Hyderabad.

The Brethren in Christ denomination has 118 churches with about 7,000 members in Orissa. Along with other Christian groups, the Brethren in Christ were directly affected by the violence, with homes and church properties burned.

Orissa's Brethren in Christ churches are planning to organize a peacemaking dialogue with Christians, Hindus and political leaders this year. The goal is to assemble a diverse team of committed peacemakers who can ease tensions in areas where there is an ongoing risk of violence, according to Roul.

Roul is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for peace in Orissa. In the run-up to the elections, the state's governing party broke off an alliance with the BJP and promised to improve security for Christians, such as those who fled their homes during the 2008 violence.

"There are still some people living in the forest area in camps," Roul said. "It will take some more time" for them to return.

On a broader scale, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ throughout India are organizing peace committees to ease tensions between different religious, political and ethnic groups in their communities. Participants from eight Mennonite and Brethren in Christ conferences will meet in Orissa from June 19 to 26 to coordinate their efforts, according to Earl Zimmerman, an MCC India representative from Harrisonburg, Va.

MCC is providing financial support to this effort, which is organized by Mennonite Christian Service Fellowship of India.