In a statement to Indian media, police said three people using one or more motorcycles shot dead Dhanu Pradhan in Kumarigaon village. He was believed to be on a hit list of Maoist rebels who also claimed responsibility for killing Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his aides August 23. However Hindu militants blamed Christians for the murder,
triggering two months of Hindu violence against Orissa’s Christian minority.
News of Wednesday’s killing came amid allegations by investigators of India’s Communist Party that at least 500 Christians were killed by Hindi mobs, over ten times more than previous government estimates. Authorities said so far up to 40 Christians were killed since sectarian violence erupted in the state in August.
The Communist Party report suggested that Orissa’s ruling Hindu nationalists covered up the extend of the violence, with one official saying he had personally authorized "cremation of more than 200 bodies." It was difficult to reconcile these different figures as so far international consensus has been that nearly 40 Christians died.
Rights groups cautioned however that it has been difficult to get access to places of fighting in Orissa, where thousands of homes and churches have been destroyed, and thousands of people forced to flee, mainly in the state’s Kandhamal district.
Religious rights group Barnabus Fund told BosNewsLife that despite some recently introduced security meassures, a climate of fear has prevailed in the region. In one of the latest incidents, Hindu militants began "forcing" Christians to "convert" to Hinduism, using rape as one of the weapons of intimidation, the group said.
"A young Hindu woman was gang-raped by her neighbours because her uncle refused to renounce his Christian faith." Elsewhere, Jaspina, a 32-year-old Christian woman, was allegedly warned by her neighbours, "If you go on being Christian, we will burn your house and your children in front of you."
Barnabas Fund said the woman was forced to attend a "conversion ceremony" together with her husband and three children, during which they had to eat cow dung to “purify” themselves.
Jaspina was quoted as saying: "I’m totally broken. I’ve always been a Christian. Inside I’m still praying for Jesus to give me peace and to take me out of this situation."
Barnabas Fund, which has been in close contacts with local Christians, said there have been "numerous cases of forced conversions" to Hinduism "as Hindu extremists try to turn Orissa into a Hindu state." In some cases, "Hindu extremists poured petrol over the Christians and then asked them to convert; if they refused they were burnt," Barnabas Fund said.
The violence in Orissa has been described as the worst in years. Human rights groups have said Hindu militants look for motives to attack especially Christians, amid concerns over the spread of Christianity among especially impoverished ‘low-caste’ Hindus. Christians form a tiny minority in India, a mainly Hindu nation of over one billion people. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).