MUMBAI, India — Archbishop Emeritus Raphael Cheenath, who for the last eight years suffered the pain of the Kandhamal conflagration — the worst Christian persecution in India’s national history — passed away Aug. 14 at Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai, after battling colon cancer for two years.
“Archbishop Cheenath … suffered much when Kandhamal was subjected to terrible attacks against Christians,” said the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, regarding the death of the 82-year-old prelate who retired as archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in 2011.
Following the mysterious murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in Kandhamal on Aug. 23, 2008, Hindu fundamentalists blamed the murder on Christians and targeted them. Nearly 100 Christians perished in the orchestrated violence, and the fundamentalists plundered and torched 6,000 Christian houses and 300 churches, rendering more than 56,000 Christians homeless.
Anguished over the suffering of his flock, Archbishop Cheenath — who had been elevated as bishop of Sambalpur at the early age of 39 and headed the vibrant Church in Kandhamal for more than a quarter century — took strong steps that surprised and initially dismayed his laity and priests: With thousands homeless, Archbishop Cheenath gave priority to the rebuilding of houses instead of churches.
He converted burnt churches as warehouses to stock building materials like cement, iron rods and asbestos sheets — irking many Kandhamal’s valiant Christians who wanted churches to be rebuilt first. Though some priests initially felt upset at being forced to say Sunday Masses in broken buildings or even in the open air, soon the commitment of their shepherd to his people’s welfare prevailed.
As the Catholic Church — which accounted for more than half of the 117,000 Christians in Kandhamal — took the lead in the rehabilitation work, Archbishop Cheenath was determined that Christian victims should not be divided or discriminated on the basis of their denomination. Hence, the rehabilitation plan — mapped out with government coordination — ensured that whoever undertook reconstruction efforts had to provide assistance to every Christian family in the area.
The prelate’s commitment to his people was reaffirmed when he took an unprecedented step around the second anniversary of Kandhamal in August 2010. Archbishop Cheenath led a sit-in of Kandhamal Christians in New Delhi, wearing a black ribbon on his forehead at Jantar Mantar — the designated protest venue near the national Parliament — demanding justice for Kandhamal’s victims.
‘Amazed by Their Witness’
His retirement in 2011 at the age of 76 did not diminish his concern for local Christians, whom he admired for their sterling witness to Christ. When thousands of Christians were threatened with death to forsake their faith, like the early Christians, they forsook everything and fled to jungles and moved out of the Kandhamal district, until they were allowed to return as faithful followers of Jesus.
“I am still amazed by their witness,” Archbishop Cheenath told me earlier this year, when I met him after I launched a campaign for the release of seven innocent Christians from jail after being fraudulently convicted for Saraswati’s murder.
In fact, the Kandhamal people’s remarkable testimony amid suffering reverberated in his words during my half a dozen meetings with the enigmatic prelate since his retirement.
Earlier even, as he struggled with colon cancer at Divine Word Monastery in Mumbai, his concern for Kandhamal stood out. In August 2015, he called me on the day I was summoned to appear before the judicial inquiry commission on Kandhamal in Bhubaneswar.
“How did it go?” asked the anxious prelate about my appearance before the Justice Naidu Commission. Though he had cautioned me that the battery of Hindu nationalist lawyers involved with the commission would attack me when I appeared, nothing happened that day. The reason: Due to a sudden death in his family, Justice A.S. Naidu, who was conducting the one-judge inquiry, was absent on the appointed day. That was yet another providential experience for me, in my dogged advocacy for the voiceless Kandhamal Christians.
And it is indeed providential that the verdict of the federal Supreme Court — after the protracted hearing on the writ Archbishop Cheenath filed in the Supreme Court about legal issues related to the Kandhamal persecution — came only 10 days before his death.
Despite numerous setbacks in the fight for justice for his people, Archbishop Cheenath finally emerged a winner, when the chief justice of India echoed his anguish.
“Such a large proportion is very disturbing,” Chief Justice T.S. Thakur declared on Aug. 3, expressing his concern over a lack of convictions for Kandhamal-related crimes. The chief justice’s pronouncement represented the final verdict on the case, which was initially filed by Archbishop Cheenath in early September 2008 and lingered for nearly eight years afterward.
The Supreme Court verdict noted that, of the 827 criminal cases registered, 315 cases were not pursued, while of 362 cases in which a verdict was given, “only 78 [trials] resulted in [a] conviction.” Hence, India’s highest court ordered Odisha state to investigate “wherever acquittals were not justified on facts.”
The Supreme Court also upheld Archbishop’s Cheenath’s contention that adequate compensation had not been paid to the victims, by more than doubling the awards, from $450 to more that $1,000, 4,500 families received for “partially” and “fully” damaged houses.
As well, the court ordered the dependants of 39 Christians, whose names were on the government’s official list of murdered victims, should receive additional compensation of $4,500, in addition to the $7,500 they had received earlier.
Aug. 17 Funeral
Though Kahdhamal’s valiant shepherd had to undergo the agony of his region going up in flames in 2008, he has reason to rest in peace, with the encouraging verdict before his death.
The funeral of Archbishop Cheenath will be led by Cardinal Oswald Gracias, archbishop of Mumbai and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, on Aug. 17 in Mumbai.
Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India. He is the author of Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda, a new investigative book about the 2008 violence against Christians in Kandhamal.