Church Awaits State OK to Respond to Ethnic Clash

As Catholic Church leaders expressed anguish over bloody ethnic clashes in Assam state that left more than 40 dead and 200,000 people homeless, the local church was awaiting a green light from the government to send relief into the affected communities. The Catholic Bishops Conference of India in a July 26 statement said it was "deeply pained" by the "mindless violence and humanitarian crisis" that has engulfed several districts in the northeastern Indian state.

"The church strongly requests the concerned communities to explore ways and means of living in love and brotherhood," the bishops said in the wake of the bloody clashes between Muslim migrants originally from Bangladesh and ethnic Bodo people.

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Following the killing of four Bodo youths by Muslims on July 20, armed bands from both communities torched settlements and plundered homes, leading to a massive displacement of people. The murder of the Bodo youths followed the killing two Muslim youths earlier in July.

"The situation is very tense and the national highway in front of us is empty," Bishop Thomas Pulloppillil of Bongaigaon, which comprises the troubled region, said on July 26 from his residence.

"Though the government is claiming that things are getting normal, the feedback we are getting is that sporadic violence is continuing in interior areas," he said. "The positive news is that army is now spreading out to more areas.

Bishop Pulloppillil and 28 diocesan priests were forced to cut short their retreat and return to the diocese to help guide a response to the violence.

Amid police patrols, the contingent passed torched buildings and carefully made their way around blockades along a major highway July 25, the bishop said.

"Many of our (Bodo) people and Muslims have taken shelter in our schools and other centers. But the government is looking after the camps right now," he said.

"We have asked the government for permission to start relief work. But the government officials say relief work will be allowed only after peace is restored," Bishop Pulloppillil added.

Meanwhile, the Bongaigaon Diocese appealed to Caritas India, Catholic Relief Services and other church partners for food, clothing, shelter, health and hygiene materials.

The region has had a history of ethnic clashes, with the most recent being between the Bodo and Santhal tribes in 1996 and 1998.

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