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Working for peace in Orissa

Tim Shenk
May 4, 2009

AKRON, Pa. — In the wake of widespread violence against Christians in India's Orissa state, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is helping to provide training to peacemakers such as Prabhudutt Nayak, a Christian social worker who is working to defuse tensions between Orissa's different ethnic and religious groups.

Nayak is a program manager with Asha Kiran Society, an Indian organization that MCC supports in carrying out agricultural development and primary health care projects in Orissa.

After the assassination of a Hindu religious leader on Aug. 23, 2008, longstanding tensions in Orissa boiled to the surface. Rioters blamed Christians for the leader's death and burned thousands of houses, killed scores of people and caused an estimated 50,000 Christians to flee their homes.

Nayak's parents were among the displaced, and his family members are still unable to return to their village. But rather than treating Hindus as his enemies, Nayak is convening forums for Hindu and Christian religious leaders, as well as government representatives, to discuss tensions in their communities.

"We talk about the type of violence that is taking place and how we can prevent it," Nayak says.

One such gathering brought together about 50 people in Koraput district in December, and another is planned for May.

Nayak says he is using the skills he learned as a student at two international schools of peace and reconciliation several years ago — Henry Martyn Institute in India and Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute in the Philippines.

MCC sponsored Nayak's studies as part of an ongoing effort to provide training to people working for peace in Orissa. In 2008, MCC sponsored one Brethren in Christ student from Orissa to attend the Mindanao Peacebuilding Institute, and MCC is sponsoring another two students from Orissa — one Christian and one Hindu — to attend the institute in May 2009.

MCC is also sponsoring workshops on peace and reconciliation for groups of Christians and Hindus in Orissa, including schoolchildren in impoverished neighborhoods of the state capital, Bhubaneswar.

MCC has worked in Orissa since providing relief and reconstruction assistance in the wake of a devastating cyclone in 1999.

Nayak says that there are many causes of conflict in Orissa, including politics and land disputes. Interreligious tensions have grown for decades as both Christians and Hindus have sought converts among Orissa's many indigenous people, who belong to 62 different tribes and are traditionally neither Christian nor Hindu.

MCC is committed to working for peace with both Christians and Hindus in Orissa, according to Earl Zimmerman, MCC India representative.

"Theologically, such a stance of inter-religious cooperation can draw on the innate dignity of all people as created in the image of God," Zimmerman wrote in an e-mail.

Although Christians bore the brunt of last year's violence, many Christian youths are also taking up arms by joining an Indian communist rebel movement called the Naxalites, Nayak says. Nayak is trying to persuade youths to follow Christ's way of peace instead.

"We have to teach these youths ... not to take weapons but to do some kinds of peace initiatives," he says.

Tim Shenk is a writer for Mennonite Central Committee.