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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 May, 2005, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Religious row over tsunami relief

By Sunil Raman
BBC News, Kerala

Tsunami damage in Alappad
Many homes and institutions were destroyed in the tsunami

Five months after the tsunami hit the southern coast of India, relief work has stalled in the southern state of Kerala after a row between Hindu and Christian groups.

Right-wing Hindu groups are angry at the local administration for allowing Christian organisations to participate in the reconstruction of homes for the tsunami victims.

They allege that the church is using relief programmes as a vehicle for converting Hindus, a charge that has been denied.

Driving down the state of Kerala, north of Quilon lies a thickly populated strip of palm-fringed land called Alappad.

It is bound by sea on one side and Kerala's famous backwaters on the other.

Left homeless

Last December, tsunami waves struck Alappad leaving around 150 people dead and destroying many houses.

Kummanam Rajashekhar
Why should Church organisations be allowed to reconstruct homes in Alappad
Hindu leader Kummanam Rajashekhar
Most of the islanders are fishermen and many live in temporary shelters built by the administration.

Unlike the temporary shelters in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, the ones in Alappad are bigger and a water tap has been provided for every two families.

Over 25,000 people were sheltered in relief camps after the tsunami.

Every family gets 1,000 rupees ($23) a month from the government and charities also help them out.

Religious row

But a few Hindu groups are unhappy at the relief work.

The Hindu Aikyavedi group says it is connected to India's oldest Hindu organisation, the RSS.

"Why should Church organisations be allowed to reconstruct homes in Alappad," its leader Kummanam Rajashekhar says.

"Christian missionaries and organisations connected with the local Church are converting Hindus in the garb of providing tsunami relief."

But the local administrator, B Srinivas, rejected this charge.

"We have thoroughly investigated the claim and found the claim to be baseless," he said.

We have not converted any Hindu in this tsunami affected area to Christianity
Father Romance Anthony
Latin Catholic Church
Father Romance Anthony of the Latin Catholic Church has been involved in relief operations.

He said the church and organisations connected with it had provided food and relief material to every tsunami affected family irrespective of their religion.

He said the problem was created by "extremist groups" connected with the RSS.

"We have not converted any Hindu in this tsunami affected area to Christianity.

"Social service organisations do not believe in conversion".

Tussle over relief

Kerala is home to a substantial number of Christians from various denominations who wield considerable political influence.

They form some 20% of the state's population.

Alappad is home to a Hindu religious organisation led by a spiritual leader, Mata Amritanandmayee.

Temporary shelter in Alappad
Some 25,000 people were sheltered in relief camps
Her religious centre runs several charitable and educational institutions in the state.

It was one of the first to reach out to the affected people and is still involved in providing relief material.

Organisations like Hindu Aikyavedi have demanded that this religious centre should be the only organisation allowed in the reconstruction work.

Local police say a few weeks ago there was nearly a religious clash over the issue of conversion.

The local administration decided to divide the reconstruction work among different organizations after being inundated with requests from both religious organisations and local charities,

One official said there was "clear logic" in allotting the reconstruction work to a local church organisation in a part of the island which has a church and 110 Christian families.

"How could we give the entire island to Mata Amritanandmayee's centre to rebuild overlooking requests from church organisations and local charities," said an official in Alappad who wished to remain unnamed.

Uneasy peace

Swami Amrita Swaroopananda Puri of Mata Amritanandmayee Mutt prefers to stay out of the controversy.

Relief camp in Alappad
Hindu groups want control over all the camps
"We offered to rebuild all the houses in Kerala but the government decided to distribute reconstruction work to many agencies," he says.

The tsunami affected families are eager to get permanent homes.

But they are caught among different groups and interests that want to have a stake in the entire reconstruction process.

Five months of claims and allegations have muddied the blue waters of the Lakshadweep Sea, with tensions in Alappad threatening the social harmony of Kerala.

For now there is an uneasy peace between the various groups and construction work is finally underway.

But it remains to be seen how long that peace will last.

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