Religious Strife in India

BANGALORE, India (CNS) — The government of Assam state has sought church support to help victims of the conflict between ethnic Bodos and Muslim migrants that has left at least 80 dead and more than 400,000 homeless.

“Government officials are now contacting us to speed up the rehabilitation of the people,” Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil of Bongaigaon, the diocese that includes the troubled region, told Catholic News Service Aug. 22.

For more than a month, the Kokrajhar district has been the scene of ethnic clashes, with armed mobs of both communities plundering and burning the other’s properties.

“I am looking for civil society support without community bias,” Vinod Seshan, one of the senior officials in Kokrajhar district, wrote to church officials Aug. 20.

The officer sought church support in key areas like education of the children in the relief camps, pediatric and specialist care, trauma and career counseling for the youth and adoption of the villages that had been completely burned.

Tarun Gogoi, Assam’ chief minister, repeated the same plea to an ecumenical delegation that called on him Aug. 21 after a visit to relief camps.

After acknowledging the relief work of the churches in the ethnic conflict zone, Gogoi asked delegation members to help restore peace, said Allen Brooks, a Catholic and member of the Assam Minority Commission who facilitated the meeting with the chief minister.

Rekha Shetty, Catholic Relief Services’ director of disaster management in India, told CNS the agency already had “opened child-friendly spaces in 10 relief camps.”

Shetty said CRS has already distributed nearly 6,000 medicated mosquito nets to people in the relief camps and was procuring more nets for distribution, since a medicated net is “effective way to reduce risk of malaria in the crowded camps in pathetic conditions.”

Shetty also said people in the camps had requested trauma counseling.

Meanwhile, religious groups worked to reassure Christians in northeastern India after thousands fled Indian cities following rumors of retaliatory attacks on people who look like ethnic Bodos.

More than 30,000 people from the northeast fled to Bangalore in less than a week, while thousands more rushed home in panic in jam-packed trains from several parts of India.

This exodus followed widespread rumors in the social media against the people of the northeast with Mongoloid features in retaliation for the violence in Kokrajhar. The panic was set off by sporadic attacks on people of the northeast region by Muslim extremists in cities like Mumbai, Pune and Mysore.

Jesuit Father Walter Fernandes, director of the North Eastern Social Research Centre based in Guwahati, said it was impossible to distinguish Mongoloid ethnic groups.

“Some of those who have been assaulted and threatened include even Nepalis and Tibetans,” he said.

One St. Joseph’s College student from Manipur state told CNS: “My parents have been repeatedly asking me to rush home … but I told them I am safe here” in the dorm.

“Had I been staying outside I, too, would have left. Sadly, it is the vulnerable poor who had fled,” added Linus.

The college arranged temporary accommodation for students fleeing the violence.

Senior Muslim leaders in Bangalore hosted an Eid al-Fitr dinner in Banglaore Aug. 21.

“You are safe here,” said Jaffar Sharieff, a prominent Muslim leader and former federal minister, holding the hands of an anguished youth.

Father Chinnappa Francis, vicar general of Bangalore Archdiocese, spoke to the more than 500 people at the dinner.

“We cannot allow religions to be misused to cause disharmony. Any religion that preaches violence or hatred is no religion at all,” he said.

“Let us isolate those who spread rumors and vengeance,” urged Father Francis.

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