The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes in which to propose and 10 minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.
I beg to move
That this Assembly condemns the violent persecution of Christians in Orissa state, India; calls for the immediate ending of this religious persecution; and further calls on Her Majesty’s Government to press the Indian authorities to ensure the safety and religious freedom of Christians throughout India.
The principle of civil and religious liberty is one that we, as a society, ought to hold dear. We know what it is like for people to be targeted and killed solely on the grounds of their faith. Our bitter experience is such that we, of all people, should make our voices heard when there is clear unmistakeable evidence of religious persecution. Events in Orissa state deserve our attention, and those who have been victims of the waves of persecution deserve our support.
Christianity in India has a history of almost 2,000 years, and the indigenous Christian community stretches back to the sub-apostolic era. However, it has not always been easy for Christians in India. Orissa state, in particular, has a long history of violence against Christians, emanating from Hindu extremists in particular. In 1969, one such Hindu extremist began a Hindu religious centre in Orissa that was dedicated to countering the work of Christian missionaries and converting tribal people to Hinduism. On 23 August 2008, that person was shot dead by Maoists, as admitted by Maoist leaders and the Orissa state police. Nevertheless, Hindu extremists used the incident to unleash an unprecedented wave of attacks against Christians. Those attacks left an estimated 120 people dead and many more injured.
Within 30 minutes of the village of Rudangia being attacked, for example, Hindu extremists had set fire to 74 houses. They were armed with axes, machetes and home-made guns, and the local population was utterly defenceless. The 230 families living in Rudangia were displaced and became numbered among more than 50,000 Indian Christians who lost their homes during the orgy of violence. One Sunday after church, a mob of some 800 people came to the village of Kandhamal and attacked the Christians there. A few days later, the women of the church came together to fast and pray about the recent persecution in their village. As they began to pray, a group of about 20 to 25 people attacked again by throwing large stones at the women’s prayer meeting.
More than 54,000 people have been displaced throughout Orissa state. Some 4,500 houses, more than 300 villages, and more than 250 churches have been destroyed. The wave of anti-Christian attacks started in Orissa, but it quickly spread to at least seven other states in India. Interestingly, the European Union has described it as a “massacre” of Christians. The Prime Minister of India, Dr Singh, called it a “national shame”. Life for many Christians in India remains bleak.
Dr Sajan George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, says that Hindu extremist groups have been reconverting Christians by force. According to Dr George, evidence has been collected and given to the authorities, but the police and other Government authorities are simply doing nothing about it. More than 4,000 people are still living in relief camps, and many thousands have been unable to return to their villages for fear of death or forcible conversion to Hinduism. Dr John Dayal, a member of the National Integration Council said:
“there was no assurance forthcoming as to when these internally displaced persons, refugees in their homeland, can return home without being forced at gunpoint … to become Hindus.”
There is a massive lack of food supplies in the area, virtually no shelter, and the area simmers with the fear of further violence. Federal soldiers are maintaining peace, but Christians wonder what will happen when the army leaves; it is obvious that the army will not stay indefinitely. Many people feel that the local constabulary did little to protect them during the outbreaks of violence in 2008. Fear is the other reason why people cannot go home. Local Christians have spoken about being afraid to go into the fields to till the ground. Unable to till their fields or to return to their houses and cut off from schooling and attending the local markets, the Christians are dependent on the little help that they receive from outside.
Many people cannot even repair their houses. The Indian Government have allocated 20,000 rupees for rebuilding the partially destroyed houses, but, during recent months, most of that money has been spent on food and medical needs.
The violence in Orissa and other states came at a time when many Christians felt that Hindu fundamentalism was on the rise. Fundamentalism itself is not necessarily bad if it is about applying the teachings of one’s faith to oneself and one’s life. Where religious fundamentalism results in religious study and piety, it is positive and beneficial. However, when it displays itself in violence, murder and death, it is destructive.
The goal of Hindu extremists is to make India a pure Hindu nation. There are an estimated 25 million Christians in India, comprising roughly 2·3% of the population, with 80·6% Hindu and 13·4% Muslim. The goal of a Hindu state that is free from the supposed taint of others enjoying civil and religious liberty is to be condemned. It is something that we in the Assembly should condemn. The Christians in the state of Orissa are depending on the outside world for help and support in their struggle simply to live according to their beliefs in the land of their birth. We should not forget them, and we should not let them down.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I listened to Mr Moutray’s contribution, and I can see similarities between the events in Orissa and the events that have plagued Ireland over many centuries: sectarianism, division and colonialism.
India’s history down through the centuries is a sad story of colonialism, in this case as a result of British rule, and interference in the local affairs of Indian states. Since India obtained freedom in the late 1940s, it has suffered religious and political division and partition between India and Pakistan, all of which have resulted in greatly troubled life for the people of India, which is one of the largest democracies, if not the largest, in the world.
How do we, as a small society and a small Assembly, assist those people to come away from what has been happening on their doorsteps: the persecution of Christians; Hindus feeling that they have been greatly wronged too; and the assassination of some of their spiritual and political leaders? How do we assist them in their journey towards that much-lamented phrase “reconciliation”? Even in our own society, we have failed to reach that point; we are still, politically, a deeply divided society. A healthy division in politics drives forward debate and makes a healthy contribution to daily life. However, we have an abnormality in politics in this part of the world that appears to me, as an observer of what is happening in India, to be somewhat similar to that in India. We have to correct it here before we start lecturing other states on how to run their affairs.
It is clear that there has been great wrongdoing in Orissa. Hundreds, if not thousands, have died; Christians have been driven from their homes; and there has been large-scale looting and burning. The Hindus and the small Muslim population in that part of the world also report great wrongs having been done to them.
The message that should come from this Assembly today is that, in order to resolve the problems in that part of the world, there must be dialogue. It must not just be around-the-table chat, but serious engagement between the leaders of the Christian and Hindu communities and the small Muslim community there. They need to sit down and deal with the issues that are of concern. As we have learned in this part of the world, we must sit around the table and make peace with our enemies, because we do not need to make peace with our friends. That is the first, difficult step in any journey towards peacemaking, whether here or on the Indian subcontinent.
I thank the Member for giving way. I will return to his comments when I conclude the debate, but where does civil and religious liberty come into Sinn Féin’s thinking when it comes to explaining the activities that go on in places such as Orissa, rather than sitting down and talking to its enemies? Where is the right to worship God, according to the dictate of one’s conscience, without being subjected to some of the horrendous scenes that have been documented in the publication that I have in front of me?
I am not, in any way, defending the actions of anyone who is involved in violence in Orissa. What is going on in that part of the world is wrong. However, I am several thousand miles away from that state. We are relying on media reports, although I accept that there is a comprehensive UN report that clearly states that there is persecution of Christians. The Hindu population also claim to be persecuted. Some of their religious and political leaders have been assassinated, so they believe that a great wrong has been done to them.
The way forward is dialogue, which is the start of the journey of healing. Of course the Christian faith should be allowed to operate and its believers should be allowed to worship their God in the way in which they want. I am not in favour of any religion dominating any political state. I believe in the separation of church and state, whether that involves the Christian, Muslim or Hindu faiths. I have no wish to see any state dominated by any faith. Members should not be under any illusions: we are fully in favour of religious liberty, whether that is in India or here.
The message is as true today in this part of the world as it was 15 years ago when our peace process started: there are difficult decisions to be made at each stage of the journey. Unless people engage with one another, that journey will come to an abrupt end. That leads to the horrors that we have seen in Orissa and throughout our history.
I broadly support the motion. We will certainly not vote against it, but it is difficult for a small Assembly such as this to debate such an issue and hope to have an influence on it. If others can learn from our experience, that would be a useful start for them. However, I am not saying that they should just duplicate everything that we have done —
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about this important motion. I thank and congratulate the Members who brought it forward. I very much regret the simplistic, anti-British, anti-colonial argument that was put forward by Mr O’Dowd. He almost put the blame for the wrongs of the situation in Orissa on the British Empire. It is peculiar and warped logic to do so.
Like many other Members of the Assembly, I have received important information about this very important subject from a number of Northern Ireland-based groups, including the CLIO Trust. I am particularly grateful to Mr Eric Johnston and Mr George McKelvey for their assistance in providing detail about the ongoing violence against Christians in Orissa. It certainly made for harrowing reading as it detailed the ongoing violence that is directed against the state’s Christian minority.
It is interesting that the Indian constitution states that India is a country of justice, equality and liberty, where people have the freedom to worship and the right to pursue any religious belief. However, the situation in Orissa stands in stark contrast to those constitutional guarantees. Indeed, Amnesty International has, on a number of occasions, voiced very strong criticism of the Indian Government and the provincial authorities there for failing to defend the rights of the Christian minority in Orissa.
The extent and nature of the ongoing violence is well documented. In the past few years, there have been orchestrated attacks by groups that are aligned with Hindu nationalism. Hundreds of people from the Christian minority have been killed. Thousands of homes have been attacked, and 25,000 people displaced. Places of worship have also been systematically targeted, and in recent weeks a camp that provided shelter to Christian families was the target of a bomb attack. A spokesperson for the Catholic archdiocese described the attack as further evidence that Hindu fundamentalists do not want Christians to live in peace with their neighbours in Orissa.
Last year’s Amnesty International report highlighted the seriousness of the situation and stated that the attacks were led by supporters of Hindu nationalist organisations, which are reportedly allied to the BJP, part of Orissa’s coalition. Those attacks included arson, looting, and sexual assaults on women. Police were found to be inactive or to be responding with excessive force in the face of sectarian violence against religious or linguistic minorities, according to Amnesty International. It is against that background that the Moderator of the Church of North India has called upon the state Governments and federal Governments to restore peace and order in Orissa.
Orissa is, indeed, a far-off part of the world. However, Northern Ireland communities are, rightly, concerned about the violence in that part of India, violence that denies religious freedom. What is more, a concern for fundamental human rights and democratic values means that none of us is free to pass by on the other side, ignoring events in Orissa.
India is the world’s largest democracy. It is heir to an ancient civilization that has benefited over centuries from a religious pluralism, an experience to which most of the world’s greatest traditions have contributed. My speech should not be interpreted as an attack on India. Rather, it is a call for the Government of India to protect their nation’s democratic values, not least religious freedom, and to ensure that India’s international reputation as an important strategic ally and trading partner of the United Kingdom is not tarnished. We support the motion.
The SDLP will also support the motion. Although it is sometimes difficult to work through fully how what we say in the Chamber may impact on other parts of the world — on this or other issues — I welcome motions such as the one brought to the Floor today.
Imagine if it were the situation that the only business we debated was the strict business of government in the North. We would end up so introspective that we would lose scale and a sense of global affairs. Whether it is on the issue of what is happening in India or denials of human rights in other parts of the world, it is important that the Assembly, hopefully collectively, asserts its views about what is happening or may not be happening in other parts of the world. We may not be in a position to influence events disproportionately or at all, but the mere fact that we make the statement is important in its own right.
A look at our own recent history shows how the benign interest taken in our experience and our conflict by other countries helped us to move beyond that past experience and out of conflict. Although Northern Ireland and Ireland are not by any means the European Union or America, the principle is the same: benign statement and intervention can help move countries to a better place. In the broader perspective, that is why I welcome the motion.
However, I also think that Northern Ireland can make a unique contribution towards moving other conflicts to a better place. When Mary Robinson, the then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, was in Belfast in December 2000, she said that it was the human rights provisions of the Good Friday Agreement that were of most interest to the rest of the world — its human rights provisions. I do not wish to anticipate tomorrow’s debate about a bill of rights for Northern Ireland, but, if we in this part of the world can get our heads around rights issues, particularly community and minority rights, we can contribute to debates in other parts of the world, including, potentially, India. If one looks at international experiences of minority and community rights in certain jurisdictions, one can see that there is little in the way of international best practice, jurisprudence or codes and conventions.
In this part of the world, long before discussions about a bill of rights or the Good Friday Agreement, people wondered whether our experience of protecting minority and community rights, however they are defined, including religious denomination, could provide a lead in developing international best practice that might be applied to our conflict and others. In that spirit, I hope that today’s debate will inform that on the motion that the Ulster Unionist Party has tabled for tomorrow.
Finally, John O’Dowd said rightly that dialogue is the essence of conflict resolution. I concur; who could not? However, in this part of the world, some dialogue has ended up with people being told what is happening and what is going to happen. That is neither dialogue nor talking; it is telling people. Therefore, we should not use our experiences, past and current, to confuse genuine dialogue with the appearance of dialogue.
I also congratulate Stephen Moutray and his colleagues on securing the debate. I welcome the terms in which he tabled the motion, as it expresses the legitimate concerns that many people in Northern Ireland have about the situation in Orissa.
I am slightly — but only slightly — sympathetic to John O’Dowd’s views. At times in this place, rather than looking at where we have come from, it can be a little bit too easy for us to lecture others. However, on this occasion, we can look back at and draw lessons from this society’s experiences and, as we move forward, seek to assist others. Therefore, I will certainly support the motion, as will my colleagues, although, given what other Members said, I suspect that we are not heading for a Division. It is clear that, whatever might be said about differences of opinion or about how people react, in this place we can surely distinguish right from wrong. It is also clear that the small Christian minority in Orissa has been subjected to horrific wrongs.
Recently, I have been listening to a BBC CD set of recordings by Mark Tully, who was the BBC’s distinguished India correspondent for the 40 or so years that he worked there. It is an absolutely fascinating set of tracks that covers snippets of the history of that vast country in all its diversity. At one stage, I heard positive points about India, which, as some Members said, is the world’s largest democracy. That democracy not only suffered the difficulties that forced it to enter a state of emergency under Indira Gandhi’s premiership, but it was able to emerge strengthened from that crisis. It is also a democracy in which power has changed between parties consistently and peacefully, which is relatively unusual in the Third World. Yet, at other times, Mark Tully’s recordings talk about the difficulties of communal tensions, principally between Hindus and Muslims, but also between Hindus and Sikhs and, as we are discussing, when Christians are the victims of what is going on with Hindu extremists.
Another factor that applies to the Indian story is that, although, in many senses, India has developed from a very poor society since independence just after the war, in many cases that development, which has come from education, has bypassed some states and some elements. That is particularly true in the villages, where people have simply not enjoyed the benefits of development and are therefore more likely to fall prey to the kind of communal tensions that we have seen there.
Taking account of that view of India, it is nonetheless right that the motion should concentrate on the particular difficulties being experienced by Christians. There is no doubt that Christians in Orissa have been blamed by Hindu extremists for activities that were almost certainly carried out by others with a Maoist doctrine. The Christian community has been a convenient whipping boy. That has added enormously to a general tension in the area, not to mention the detailed lists of atrocities that others have delivered: the murders not only of native Christians but of missionaries; the creation of refugees on a vast scale; and the destruction of homes, other properties and churches throughout Orissa. That is well documented, as was highlighted by Danny Kennedy, not just by the victims themselves but in reports from respected international organisations such as Amnesty International, which have taken a clear view of what is happening.
The Assembly can send out a clear message today, however limited its effects may be, that everyone has a right to freedom of opinion and to worship as they see fit. The motion is a simple call for that human right to the freedom to worship in peace. As Alex Attwood said earlier, however modest the effects of the motion may be, it is absolutely right that we should pass it. We should seek to learn the lessons that have arisen from our own history and assist others, as we have been assisted by others. In particular, we should stand by the Christians in Orissa, who have suffered so much.
I congratulate my colleagues on tabling the motion. I regret that Sinn Féin has resorted to type by appearing to blame the plight of Christians in Orissa state on the British Government’s involvement in India many years ago. Sadly, the SDLP has taken a leaf out of that book and done the same.
I was first made aware of the plight of the Christians in Orissa by a constituent in Saintfield who was genuinely concerned for the welfare of Christians living there. My first action was to write to the Rt Hon David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary in London, pointing out the problems faced by Christians and asking him to make representations to the appropriate authorities to inquire about what was being done to ensure that Christians were able to live freely in Orissa and to worship, as of right, in the faith that they hold dear.
My response was from Chris Bryant MP, Mr Miliband’s deputy, and I wish to put it on record to encourage those who have raised the issue:
“Thank you for your letter of 20 August to the Foreign Secretary on behalf of your constituent… about the outbreaks of violence against Christians in Orissa State, India. I am replying as the Duty Minister.”
Mr Bryant went on to that he shared my constituent’s concern about:
“the situation in Orissa following the outbreaks of violence last year. We have expressed our concerns directly to the Indian government and their representatives. Lord Malloch-Brown raised the matter with the Indian High Commissioner in London last October. He also discussed the situation with Anand Sharma, former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs, and Mohammed Qureshi, Chairman of the Indian Minorities Commission, when he visited New Delhi on 17 October.
Following the attacks and continuing tensions in the area, an EU delegation, which included a representative from the British High Commission in New Delhi, visited Orissa in December to assess the situation.
The delegation received assurances from the Orissa State Director General of Police that all measures had been taken to prevent and suppress any repetition of the violence that took place in August. The EU Presidency also wrote to the Indian government to reiterate EU concerns on this issue on 18 December.
Religious freedom and minority rights in India, including the attacks in Orissa, were discussed at the EU India Human Rights Dialogue on 27 February.
Whilst activity by the EU Human Rights Working Group was put on hold during the recent Indian elections, the Swedish Presidency is focussed on the issue and plans to do a follow-up visit to Orissa in the next couple of months.”
“We welcome the Indian government’s efforts to protect communities, restore law and order, and the offer of compensation to victims including the disbursement of £140,000 to 35 families, who lost one of their kin to violence. The Indian government has also set up the central scheme of Assistance To Victims Of Terrorist And Communal Violence, which came into effect in April 2008, and aims to provide assistance to the next of kin of victims of terrorist, including militancy and insurgency and communal violence. Under the scheme, an amount of £4,000 is given to the next of kin of the deceased victims.”
The concluding passage should be highlighted:
“The UK government will continue to urge the government of India to ensure that the perpetrators and inciters of the violence in Orissa are brought to justice, an appropriate level of compensation is received by the victims and the rights of minorities in India upheld.”
In another place, we can continue to raise the profile of this cause, and I reiterate my delight that my colleagues succeeded in having this motion debated. We will do everything that we can to highlight this issue.
I support the motion and congratulate my colleagues on securing the debate. Christianity is the third largest religion in India, although it is practised by only 2·3% of the population. Christian roots date back 2,000 years, and we still have missionaries who hear the call of God to evangelise and travel to India. Some of them are from my own church.
However, that once-accepting nation is now not so accepting of Christians, and there has been a marked rise in persecution. I am immensely shocked and appalled to read of the persecution that is taking place against Christians, especially in Orissa. I receive the ‘Release International’ magazine every month, which tells of persecuted Christians across the world. Persecution is taking place in many places but, today, we wish to focus on Orissa.
The Indian Prime Minister’s statement on 3 December 2008 stated that violence was a national shame and that his Government had taken a firm stand to halt it. Violence against the Christian minorities has continued, and it is well over a year later. Therefore, his words of a year or so ago have, unfortunately, meant very little. The violence against the Christian minorities, which began on 24 August 2008 after the murder of a prominent Hindu nationalist leader, has continued and is becoming a way of life for the Christian community. That is unacceptable. That is not a normal way of life, and it is past time that our Government stepped in to speak for the oppressed.
The nummer o’ Christian fowk wha hae tuk’ shelter i 25 relief camps rin bae the state authorities hes ris’ fae 12,000 tae 20,000 i yin montht las’ yeir an’ ris’ bae neir 40,000 at wur driv’ intae hidin’ i the jungles. Efter things joined tae calm doon monie fowk went beck tae thair hames the mair at thair wur thoosans o’ ithers wha hae bein displaced an’ Amnesty International bes feart at the feck o’ thaim wulnae bae fit tae gae hame.
The number of Christians who have taken shelter in 25 relief camps run by the state authorities rose from 12,000 to 20,000 within a month last year and has increased to approximately 40,000, including those who were driven into hiding in the jungles. After matters initially calmed down, many returned to their homes, although thousands are still displaced, and Amnesty International fears that most of them are unable to return home. According to camp residents, they face threats of violence and, in some cases, an ultimatum from supporters of Hindu nationalist organisations to convert to Hinduism if they want to return home. Civil and religious liberty means the opportunity to practise one’s Christianity.
The attacks began in August last year and, within two months, led to the deaths of 25 people. Furthermore, it is suspected that more murders have been covered up. Thirty places of worship in one region were damaged, and the suspected perpetrators were arrested only after immense pressure from opposition parties. The problems that were apparent in all those attacks were the lack of speed with which the police acted and their unwillingness to act.
I read one account of a pastor being injured, and it summed up the attitude of the police and, subsequently, the attitude of the Government who rule the police. The Sunday worship service of the Beersheba Church of God concluded at noon, as usual. Pastor Pavithra Kumar was approached by a young man enquiring about a boy, but the pastor said that he did not know the boy. The young man left and returned with 10 masked men who arrived on six bikes. They called the pastor out of the church and attacked him with wooden sticks, hockey sticks and their fists. The pastor tried to run back inside the church, and a woman from the church got caught up in the melee and sustained injuries. They closed the doors on their attackers. The men threatened the pastor and the believers from outside the church and left the scene. Pastor Pavithra was badly injured, especially on his hands, chest, back and head.
The pastor and the believers went to the Mastoori police station to file a complaint. The policeman in charge refused to file a report and said that the police had no knowledge of a church being run. However, after much persuasion, the police filed a complaint. That illustrates that the police were not willing or able to reply when they should have done so.
I am aware that the UK Government expressed concern to the Indian Government in 2008 and that representatives from the UK have been part of delegations that have gone to India. However, from the latest information that is coming from our missionaries on-site in India, we can see that the situation is far from that which is being painted by the Indian Government. Things are not changing for the good; they are getting steadily worse, with the main difference being that people are beginning to see the situation simply as the way things are. That is not how things are; not now, not ever. It is time for the UK Government to make a decisive move and ask for immediate action and change. For instance, the law in Orissa, which states that anyone who converts to Christianity must inform the authorities, earmarks people for persecution. It is those kinds of details that must be highlighted and changed.
It has become crystal clear that the Indian Government have to change and adopt a positive attitude to the Christians in their midst, and the time for them to do so has long since passed. International pressure must be applied. I support the motion, and I urge the House to do likewise.
Considering the traumatic circumstances that surrounded the creation of the Indian state, the country has been a remarkable example of democratic tolerance and respect for difference. For the majority of India’s modern existence, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs and many more religions have lived together side by side in relative harmony and stability, and they still do. However, the developments in Orissa are extremely disturbing and should be treated with the utmost seriousness by the Indian authorities and the international community.
I thank the Members for tabling the motion. It is a reminder that we live in a global village, where events in distant countries impact upon us through the media, travel, business links, immigration and often through shared faith commitments and identities.
The area of Kandhamal in Orissa state has been the main focus for the outbreaks of violence against the region’s Christian minority. It was there that the majority of people suffered and the greatest number of people were displaced. The Christian minority is no privileged elite. They are often landless or marginal landholders, and they are living in fear and feel unsafe and insecure.
Violence towards minority Christians has been occurring for some years. In December 2007, for instance, the Kandhamal district witnessed religious violence during which 37 Christians were killed and religious institutions destroyed. That willingness to murder is particularly disturbing, as is the determination to remove any Christian presence from the region through attacks on places of worship, hospitals and schools.
At the heart of the matter is a deep intolerance that is seen in the extremist nationalism of fundamentalist Hindu organisations. Rejecting India’s long and noble tradition of religious tolerance, fundamentalist Hindus are targeting the minority faiths, including Christianity, in several regions of India.
Christianity is not a recent western export to India. Indeed, the first Indian Christian communities date to the fourth century, and Islam and Buddhism have likewise been part of Indian culture for centuries. Last Sunday, my own congregation in Clough celebrated its 350th anniversary, and it was from that congregation that the first Indian missionary was sent from the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.
In attacking religious diversity, Hindu fundamentalists are attacking India’s culture and heritage. That is an opinion shared by the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, who has stated that the Orissa violence is “a national shame”.
The fact that citizens are being deprived of life, liberty and property in modern India, the world’s largest democracy, is a warning that India cannot take its democratic values for granted. Reports that the state Government and the local police have acted as bystanders while mobs attacked Orissa’s Christian minority must add to our concerns.
The Christian community was wrongly accused of killing the deputy inspector-general of the police, who was a Hindu. Due to that accusation, the persecution of innocent Christians began, resulting in several hundred being killed, including pastors and church leaders, while properties, including missionary schools and hospitals, were obliterated.
I will not go into any more detail, because other Members have already done that. However, I will say that violence and persecution of any minority is wrong. I stand by the Christians of Orissa. It is right that we in the Assembly, with our history of so many suffering because of their religion, should bring the issue to the light of the Indian community in Northern Ireland, whom we treasure, and ask that true democracy prevail in India. I support the motion.
At the outset, I thank all Members who have taken part in the debate today. It has been a useful debate, and I will come to individual contributions in a moment.
On several occasions, the Assembly has held important debates on the principles of civil and religious liberty and the freedom not only to hold individual religious views but to be able to freely and openly express such views. Members have not always agreed on those matters, but I think that we would all agree that, compared with some places in the world, we enjoy many privileges and freedoms that we should appreciate and never take for granted.
It has been claimed that there were more Christian martyrs in the twentieth century than in all of the previous centuries combined. That is a sobering thought and a frightening one. There are organisations that keep bringing us up to date with many places across the world — not just in India — where being a Christian is something that results in a person being either attacked or maligned. There are many sad examples of that, and the first decade of the twenty-first century shows no signs of bucking the trend of the twentieth century.
There are times when we feel that ignorance would be bliss on the issue, but we cannot close our eyes to what is going on in the world. It may be too painful for us to take in what is happening in places such as Orissa in eastern India, but we must not allow ourselves to turn a blind eye to the atrocities that are taking place there. That is why I welcome today’s debate. In preparing for the debate, I was shocked to read some of the accounts and view some of the horrific photographic evidence of what has taken place in Orissa.
Living in Northern Ireland, with its small population, we sometimes find it difficult to comprehend the scale of some worldwide events. Orissa has a population of almost 37 million. Around 94% are Hindu, and, over the years, the small Christian minority of 2% has suffered from opposition and contempt. However, 2% amounts to around 900,000 people. Think about that: almost one million people harassed, victimised, imprisoned, tortured or murdered simply because of their faith and because they want, in conscience, to worship the God of heaven and to have personal faith and a trust in the person of Jesus Christ.
It has been mentioned that it was the murder of Orissa’s Hindu nationalist icon and four of his disciples in the Kandhamal district in August 2008 that sparked off the latest round of attacks on Christian people and property. Although those murders were committed by Maoists, Christians have been blamed as the likely culprits because the murdered man had been very opposed to the Christian faith and the work of Christian missionaries. Over the years, groups of anti-Christian forces have unleashed a campaign of destruction, murder and genocide against Christians on a scale of depravity and hellish wickedness that is hard to take in, and other Members have referred to those incidents in some detail.
The Indian Government have, rightly, said that the violence in Orissa is “a national crime”. That is to put it extremely mildly. However, the state Government have failed in their duty to protect their citizens, and we are right to highlight that fact in the House. Many have lost their homes and been forced to flee and live in refugee camps. Others have been murdered, and families have been shattered and broken apart. However, the law enforcement agencies are doing nothing to protect life and property.
The persecution is so great that some Christians simply give up and are pressurised into recanting their faith. However, when they decide to do so and when they return to their homes and to the Hindu religion, are they welcomed back with open arms? Not so. On the contrary, they are forced to eat cow manure and drink cow urine in a bizarre ceremony of humiliation, degradation and shame. Those acts cannot be allowed to continue. If the Orissa Government will not act, I appeal to the Indian Government to act and to act swiftly.
In the moments that remain, I will comment on Members’ contributions. It is sad that we could not have had a contribution from the party opposite without reference being made to British colonialism. I am glad to see that Mr O’Dowd is still in the Chamber. It seems as though everything in the world is down to British rule. This is not the result of British colonialism but the result of people not being able to show respect to others of a different faith and a different perspective. I say to Mr O’Dowd and the House that it is for that reason that we in Northern Ireland suffered for 40 years and more. I remind the Member that people were murdered in their place of worship in Northern Ireland. The sole reason for that was not the absence of dialogue; the sole reason was sectarian hatred and an inability to respect those of a different faith and hue.
I do not lay all the blame at the door of British colonialism. However, it was not only me who said that divisions were caused in India — no less a man than Mahatma Gandhi pointed to Britain’s role in perpetuating divisions in Indian society. Mr Storey refers to religious respect here, yet we have a Minister who has told the world that he will not set foot inside a Catholic chapel to attend a Catholic service. Is that respect?
That is a civil and religious liberty. Mr O’Dowd needs an education. The Reformation brought people the right to make those choices. Before the Reformation, we lived in the Dark Ages, when people were made to go to a certain place of worship and were not allowed to read the word of God. I am quite happy to meet the Member at any time and give him a history lesson about the benefits of the reformed faith. I respect the views of the Minister that the Member referred to. Those are his personal views, which I support and with which I concur.
Danny Kennedy referred to the Indian Constitution. I think that that is a classic example of people putting on paper something that they are not prepared to put into practice. Mr Kennedy is right, and I commend him for drawing our attention to that.
Alex Attwood said that we in Northern Ireland set an example of international best practice. However, there are many other things that we in Northern Ireland could do that would represent better examples of coming together in this society. Northern Ireland is not perfect, and there is a huge number of problems that we still have to overcome, so I would be cautious about holding ourselves up as an example of best practice in respect of international affairs.
David Ford referred to Mark Tully’s broadcasts. We would all do well to listen to the informative programmes that Mr Tully has produced. It was helpful that Mr Ford expressed the clear message that needs to be sent out today: the requirement for freedom to worship in peace. We need to treasure and value that freedom, which must be extended to everyone, because it is not solely the domain of those of the reformed faith. That freedom must be extended to all who wish to worship. They should be able to worship in the absence of violence.
I am indebted to my colleague Iris Robinson for her very important intervention and contribution to the debate. She has taken the matter to David Miliband, and it is good that the Foreign Office response has been placed on record today. I have no doubt that Iris, along with her Westminster colleagues, will continue to take the message expressed by this House to our Government. The issue must not only be recorded but effectively dealt with. I thank Iris for that. Jim Shannon outlined some of the harrowing detail of what is going on.
I conclude by referring to my colleague Dr Coulter, who reminded us of the contribution made by missionaries who have gone to the land of India. That Christian message can bring ultimate peace not only to India but to the Province that we love, because only that message can bring peace in man’s heart between God and his neighbour.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Assembly condemns the violent persecution of Christians in Orissa state, India; calls for the immediate ending of this religious persecution; and further calls on Her Majesty’s Government to press the Indian authorities to ensure the safety and religious freedom of Christians throughout India.