NEW DELHI — More than 500 Christians attended a prayer meeting on Nov. 18 at the gate of Sacred Heart Cathedral here to protest the murder of a Catholic nun.

The gathering, which included dozens of nuns, was led by Archbishop Vincent Concessao.

Sister Valsa John of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, 53, was hacked to death Nov. 15 for her work to help impoverished tribal peoples against exploitation by the coal-mining industry in Jharkhand state in eastern India.

“Sister Valsa was no ordinary nun,” said Sister Mary Scaria, a fellow sister and secretary of the legal committee of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India. “We have lost a courageous and determined Sister who stood up for the poor.”

According to the police, the nun was killed by a mob of 50 people who beat her with sticks and then axed her in the remote Bachuwari village, after knocking on the door of the hut she was staying in around midnight.

Father Babu Joseph, a spokesman for the bishops’ conference, stated, “We condemn this heinous crime and urge the authorities to book the culprits.”

The Jharkhand government has ordered a high-level enquiry into the murder.

The nun had been living in the jungle village since 1995.

“Due to the protests led by our Sister Valsa, the coal [mining] company had to concede all the demands of the poor tribals who had been displaced,” said Sister Lilly Mary, the provincial superior of the slain nun. Sister Lilly Mary is based in Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand state.

The agreement with the mining company, Sister Lilly Mary said, was signed in 2007, after a decade of spirited protests led by the nun, who had several false cases registered against her by police. Sister Lilly Mary said the courts had rejected the charges against the nun.

In the wake of ongoing threats to her physical safety, the leaders of her congregation urged Sister Valsa to leave the region.

“But she was determined to stay on with her people,” recalled Sister Scaria, a lawyer at the high court in New Delhi.

Sister Valsa had joined the congregation after quitting her high-school teaching job 24 years ago,  and wanted to work in the challenging area, said the sisters.

“I was stunned when I heard the news,” Anil Radhakrishnan, a Hindu journalist, told the Register Nov. 18. Radhakrishnan published a touching profile of the nun and her work in Malayala Manorama, Kerala’s leading daily in the local Malayalam language. The profile, titled “Unfading Lamp of Love,” was based on what the journalist had witnessed in 2007, when he was sent on an assignment to profile the nun.

“When my jeep reached the village, the tribals, wearing bows and arrows, stopped our vehicle. When they were told that I had come to profile their leader, they blew horns and led us cheerfully with traditional bands,” recalled Radhakrishan.

Holding the hands of the nun, who was dressed in the same green sari the tribals wore, the head of the village told the journalist that the nun was “our God” and recounted to him how she had helped them stand up against exploitation by the mining lobby, which had reduced the illiterate tribals to “slaves.”

“She was a real champion of those people,” reiterated the Hindu journalist.

While Amarnath Khanna, the superintendent of police of Pakur district, said the authorities suspect that the murder was the work of the coal-mining mafia, Stephen Marandi, former, deputy chief minister of Jharkhand and a Protestant Christian, also confirmed the nun faced repeated threats.

“Sister Valsa had informed me that she was getting threatening messages. I have appealed to the state government to investigate the matter,” stated Marandi, who signed the tripartite agreement on behalf of the government with the tribals and the mining company in 2007.

“She has been telling us about the threats for a long time,” confirmed Baby Malamel, the elder brother of the nun, who attended the Nov. 17 funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Dumka with hundreds of Christians.

“I visited the village where my sister was killed. An eyewitness [to the murder] told me that the assailants were from outside the village,” Malamel told the Register.

Major Archbishop George Alencherry, head of the autonomous Syro-Malabar Church, which is based in Kerala, consoled the family of the slain nun.

The head of the Oriental-rite Church stated that the murdered nun “has shown the world how to care for the poor and dedicated her life to the Church and her faith.”

Register correspondent Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.