GADRAGAM, India — Two dozen Christians were dancing excitedly to the tune of Christian hymns on New Year’s Day at Gadragam village in the Indian state of Orissa.
That may not be a surprise, considering the red-letter day. But this is the Kandhamal jungles of eastern Orissa state, where just a few years ago, fundamentalist Hindus let loose a severe attack on their Christian neighbors, taking the lives of more than 100 people.
Plus, the rejoicing was in front of the remains of a burnt-out house in which a disabled Christian youth had been burned to death during the widespread violence.
“Our people are no longer afraid; they are ready to profess their faith boldly,” exclaimed Rabindra Pradhan, elder brother of 28-year-old Rasanand Pradhan, who was torched alive in his house during the orchestrated anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal.
“The martyrdom of my brother has not gone in vain. Half a dozen Hindu families are now regularly attending our worship,” pointed out the retired Indian soldier.
Disabled by stroke, his younger brother Rasanand was the first martyr among the Christians who laid down their lives in Kandhamal for their faith during the worst persecution of Christians in Indian history.
Following the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008, Hindu fundamentalists alleged that the murder was a Christian conspiracy. Despite Maoist rebel claims of responsibility for the murder, Hindu mobs went on a rampage against the Christians in the region.
In the widespread violence that went on unabated for weeks, in addition to the many deaths, 300 churches and nearly 6,000 houses were looted and torched, rendering more than 54,000 Christians homeless.
When several hundred armed Hindus led by fundamentalists descended the next evening on Gadragam and started destroying the local church, Rabindra recalled, the 40-odd evangelical Christian families took to their heels.
“When we realized that Rasanand was left behind, we could do nothing about it. The mob leaders were challenging us to come forward, if we were bold, and save him. The memory of the house going up in flames with Rasanand inside it still haunts me,” Rabindra said.
A Flower and an Apology
Kartick Behra may have been haunted too, though in another way.
“We have been inspired by the faith of these people, so we decided to become Christians,” said Behra, a Hindu farmer who has been attending church services in the village for a year. “When I fell sick, I started coming to the church, and my sickness got healed. I am no more worried about being attacked by those people,” said Behra.
During the attack on the Christians in Gadragam, surrounded by exclusive Hindu villages, Hindu fundamentalists had put a sword to Behra’s neck. That was because he had refused to hand over the valuables Christian families had kept in his house for safety.
“Many more families here now want to become Christians,” said Behra, whose wife and four children are now regular churchgoers.
This correspondent also met several Hindus who are now regularly attending Sunday Mass at the Catholic church at Tiangia, which had witnessed the brutal murder of half a dozen Christians during the 2008 violence.
“Coming to the church gives me peace of mind. Nothing is going to change my decision,” said Jamboti Digal, a widow who attended Mass on New Year’s Day in Tiangia, about 40 miles from Gadragam.
Apart from hundreds of Hindus embracing the Christian faith across Kandhamal, even those who attacked Christians to force them to forsake their faith are now apologizing for the brutality.
Hippolitus Nayak, a retired government official and a Catholic, said he had one of the happiest New Year’s greetings this year. Lakhno Pradhan, one of the leaders of Hindu fundamentalists who had led mob attacks on Christians and churches around Tiangia, greeted him with a flower on the morning of Jan. 1 at his door.
“He apologized for what the Hindu mobs had done to the Christians. Certainly, God is melting hardened hearts in Kandhamal now,” said Nayak, whose house was destroyed in the violence.
Father Prasanna Kumar Singh, vicar of the Pobingia parish, said one of the leaders of the Hindu fundamentalists in the area had already apologized for the severe damage to the church, which was not repaired and rededicated until 2011.
“He even took part in the Christmas service and offered fruits during the offertory,” Father Singh said.
Father Subhodh Pradhan, vicar of the Raikia parish, the largest in Kandhamal, with 750-plus families, also confirmed that several Hindus are now expressing a desire to become Christians.
“We have to be careful, as the law could put us in trouble,” Father Pradhan pointed out. He has already been approached by well-to-do Hindus.
Under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, those changing their faith and religious leaders undertaking the conversion first have to seek prior permission from the highest government official of the district.
“All the same, it is a fact that Kandhamal is proving Tertullian right,” commented Father Pradhan, former rector of St. Paul’s Minor Seminary at Balliguda in Kandhamal.
Church historian Quintus Septimius Florens Tertullianus, better known as Tertullian, is the author of the dictum “The blood of martyrs is the seed of Christians.”
No Ill Will
The unfaltering witness of the Christians in Kandhamal, with many of them harboring no ill will towards their tormentors, Father Pradhan said, has touched the hearts of hundreds of Hindus.
Despite such optimism, Kandhamal is far from normal with regard to the persecution of Christians. Two pastors — Saulo Pradhan and Minoketon (Michael) Nayak — had been killed in 2011 under mysterious circumstances, and the dependent families suggest it was murder at the hands of Hindu fundamentalists.
When Dilip Mallick, a Hindu who recently became a Baptist, returned from a midnight Christmas service with his wife and younger brother, they found their traditional wood house at Madinato village near Balliguda reduced to ashes.
“This shows the danger of becoming a Christian in Kandhamal,” remarked Montfort Brother K. J. Markose, who has been assisting the young convert to restart his life.
But Mallick was unfazed. “I will remain a Christian whatever happens,” he said, clutching the burnt wooden pillar of his house, while his wife stood next to him.
“I can only say they are God’s own people,” said Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack Bhubaneswar, the diocese that contains Kandhamal, during his New Year’s pastoral visit to the region.
“God’s plans are beyond our comprehension. What happened here (in Kandhamal) was very painful,” said Archbishop Barwa, who took charge of the persecuted Church in April 2011. “But it was not a curse. It is now turning out to be a blessing.”
Register correspondent Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.