NANDAGIRI, India — Two years after violent attacks against Christians in the eastern Indian state of Orissa, the forgiveness shown by Christians is inspiring some of their Hindu neighbors. Some are even converting.
Christians who have been displaced, meanwhile, are living a difficult life.
“We are here because of our faith,” said Sabita Nayak, who leads a harsh life on the slopes of the desolate road passing through hilly Nandagiri in troubled Kandhamal district.
After living in a cramped refugee camp for nearly a year, Sabita’s family, along with four dozen other Catholic families of Beticola village, were dumped at Nandagiri by state officials in June 2009.
Since then the Catholic families have been struggling in a no-man’s land without water or toilets.
“Many of the Christians could go back (to their villages). But we had no choice,” Sabita explained.
The reason: The Hindu fundamentalists of Beticola were adamant that they would not allow the Christians to set foot in their village unless they forsook their faith.
Reluctant to take on the fundamentalists, the Kandhamal administration found an easy way out and “transplanted” these families at a forsaken government forest area — about 10 miles from their native village.
“If you become Hindu, we will not break your house” was the threat Sabita heard in August 2008.
Following the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23 that year, Christian targets went up in flames. Saraswati had led a vociferous campaign against conversions to Christianity in Kandhamal.
Though Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the murder, fundamentalist groups alleged that the Swami’s murder was a “Christian conspiracy,” and the fundamentalists pounded the Christians.
Thousands of Christians had been herded out of their villages and corralled into temples like lambs being led to slaughter houses and forcibly reconverted to Hinduism. Their persecutors told them that Christianity is a “foreign religion and only Hindus can live in Kandhamal.”
While those who refused were beaten up and brutally murdered, thousands were forced to drink cow dung water to “purify” them and to chant dreadful oaths preventing them from returning to the churches.
In the widespread violence against Christians that went on unabated for weeks, more than 90 Christians were killed, over 5,000 Christian houses and 300 churches and Christian institutions were looted and torched, and 54,000 Christians were displaced.
“From the beginning of Christianity, there has been persecution. It is part of Christian life,” reasoned another Catholic, Chrisanto Mallick, sitting inside one of the new houses blessed on July 6.
Mallick said that he was benefiting from the troubles. With charities building houses for Christians on a small plot of land allotted them by the government, he earns his wages as a stone mason.
On the other hand, he said, many of the families are struggling. Despite 50 families living there, an eerie silence haunts the new Christian settlement.
As Mallick pointed out, “Can you find many children here?”
With most of the unemployed parents struggling to feed their families and no schools around in the neighborhood, the children are put up in hostels across Kandhamal and outside.
“Earlier, we had no problems and lived comfortably. But now, we do not have even regular food,” said Sabita. “But we have peace and happiness. Prayer is our solace. Maybe God wants us to undergo this suffering.”
Such powerful witness to the faith in hostile conditions is slowly bearing fruit in Kandhamal.
“We harassed them and destroyed their houses. But they have no hatred and anger against us,” said Junos Digal, a member of the mob who attacked Christian targets during the 2007 anti-Christian violence that rocked Barakhama, about 43 miles from Nandagiri.
“There is certainly something special about how their faith helps them overcome difficulties. This has brought me here,” said Junos, squatting on the mat in the makeshift Protestant church (their church was destroyed) with his Bible kept open in front of him.
Junos added: “If Jesus could influence people’s lives to such an extent, I would prefer to be part of such a faith.” Asked whether he is not worried about the Hindu fundamentalists turning their ire on him for betraying their faith, an unfazed Junos replied: “I am not worried about that. Many of us were misled and now they will accept the reality.”
In fact, Junos is not the only Hindu who has turned Christian in recent times in Barakhama. Sailama Digal embraced Christianity months earlier along with her son and cousin.
“We could not understand why they (Christians) were attacked and their houses destroyed. My conscience made me take this decision,” said Sailama as she squatted on the floor of the makeshift church among dozens of Christians for Sunday service.
The entry of over a dozen such converts to their congregation has brought joy and comfort to the Christians who held on to their faith amid persecution. “In our suffering, our faith has increased,” said Jayanti Digal.
“Even when we were suffering, our spirits were strong and kept us going,” said Jayanti, whose house, along with those of over 400 Christian families of the area, had been destroyed in the violence. “Now we are glad that even those who attacked us have started respecting our faith,” she said.
Father Bijay Kumar Pradhan, who is coordinating reconstruction in a particularly hard-hit area, said that some of the Hindus have already approached him saying that “we want to become Christians.”
The church workers decided to reach out to dozens of dalit (oppressed low caste) Hindu families whose houses had been damaged by tribals earlier. Father Bijay pointed out that these Hindus were impressed by the concern Christians had shown to them despite the atrocities committed on the Christians in Kandhamal.
“Forgiveness has its effect,” said the priest, but he promptly added that he “dissuaded” the Hindus saying that “the Church is not rebuilding the Hindu houses to make them Christians.”
Anto Akkara filed this report from Kandhamal, India.