MILWAUKEE — Father Ranjit Tigga has spent most of his life as a Jesuit missionary in rural India working with poor tribal villagers near the state of Orissa, southeast of Calcutta near the Bay of Bengal.
Father Francis Ezhakunnel, another Jesuit missionary, was the director of a leprosy center in the state of Jharkhand, just north of Orissa.
And Father Nicolas Santos teaches college in western India.
All three Indian priests are now at Marquette University studying for advanced degrees in business administration and communications, so they can return to India and aid in the advancement of those they serve.
Although immersed in their studies here, they keep a watchful eye and receive regular bulletins on events unfolding around Orissa, where they say attacks and persecution against Christian communities remain a constant and growing threat.
Recent violence was so deadly that the bishops of India asked all Catholic schools across the country to close for one day last week “as a protest against the atrocities on the Christian community and other innocent people,” according to a report in The Catholic Reporter.
And Sunday has been designated as a day of prayer for peace and harmony in India, said Tigga.
But the priests say few in the United States are aware of the religious and political conflict affecting the Orissa region. Tensions between Christians and Hindus date back centuries, said Tigga.
But in the past, Hinduism was always accommodating to other religions, including Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, he said. “In general, there had been peace.”
Most of the more than 1 billion residents of India are Hindu, with Christians accounting for only 2.3 percent of the population, he added.
But since the early 1980s there's been a rise of Hindu fundamentalists — many of whom are members of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the political party that rules Orissa — and violence has broken out, the priests said.
“They work in the name of Hindutwa, which is an ideology that means there should be one culture and one ideology in India, and that should be the BJP,” said Tigga.
Hard-line Hindus accuse Christian missionaries of using education, health care and other services to convert low-caste Hindus.
“It's not an issue of becoming Christians, it's an issue of insecurity by the BJP because as missionaries we work with the poor to give them dignity and human rights,” said Ezhakunnel. “They become closer to us and may eventually accept religion, but that takes time. It's not the first step. ”
“They get education and health care and social and political development and start demanding their rights, and that makes them a threat,” said Tigga.
While all Hindus are not alike, so too, some Christian groups may try more aggressive conversion tactics, and that makes the issue more complex, said Santos.
The latest violence erupted in late August after a Hindu leader was murdered in a tribal area where he was leading a local campaign to reconvert Hindus from Christianity, according to news reports the priests received.
The killing sparked more violent clashes, and about 26 people have died in the unrest that followed, said Tigga, quoting from information he's received from the archbishop of Bhubaneswar.
He said 50 places of worship have been destroyed, 15 churches and convents destroyed and more than 4,000 homes of Christians in the villages in the Kandhamal district burned.
The Vatican condemned all sides of the violence. Pope Benedict XVI called upon religious and civil authorities “to work together to restore peaceful co-existence and harmony between the different religious communities.”
“It's getting worse,” said Tigga, who had brushes with violence while he was working near Orissa.
“It's dangerous to work there,” he said.
© 2008, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Visit JSOnline, the Journal Sentinel's World Wide Web site, at http://www.jsonline.com/
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. AMX-2008-09-10T10:46:00-04:00