Whenever I go to Kandhamal — the ground zero of one of the worst persecutions of Christians in Indian history — unexpected things unfold.

The primary objective of my visit mid-June to the remote jungle district in Odisha state on the east coast, where Christian targets had gone up in flames since August 2008, was to confirm couple of important stories, including elephants saving a Catholic youth from being burnt alive by a mob.

While in Kandhamal this time, I had the inspiration to try again to meet the seven Christians languishing in jail after being fraudulently convicted to life imprisonment for the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati that triggered the 2008 bloodshed and persecution.

Nearly 100 Christians became martyrs in the orchestrated violence that engulfed Kandhamal following the mysterious murder of the Hindu leader, shot dead in his ashram in Kandhamal on the night of Aug. 23.

While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing of the highest Hindu leader of Kandhamal district, located 200 miles southwest of Odisha’s capital city Bhubaneswar, Hindu nationalists promptly trumpeted the murder as a “Christian conspiracy” and targeted the district’s large Christian minority.

Thousands of Christians had to flee to jungles to escape the ignominy of being trooped into Hindu temples for a “reconversion ritual” to force them to recant their faith. During weeks of unabated mayhem, mobs led by Hindu fundamentalists plundered and torched 6,000 Christian houses and 300 churches, rendering more than 56,000 of them homeless.

As one who has keenly pursued the travesty of justice in Kandhamal from the beginning, the plight of the “Seven Innocents” has been close to my heart. During my frequent visits to Kandhamal, I followed closely their trial, which ended up in their shocking conviction in October 2013 and sentence to life imprisonment. Since my earlier attempts to meet them in the jail at Phulbani, Kandhamal district’s headquarters, had failed due to “strict orders” restricting access to them, I made yet another try June 17.

Since six of them had been moved recently to the jail at Balliguda, I met jail officials seeking permission to attend the routine weekly prayer with them, without revealing my identity. The official told me to submit an application — along with my proof of identity — that needed to be taken to higher officials for approval. That would have certainly been the end of it.

As divine intervention would have it, as one may call it, the official himself suddenly suggested that “the better option” would be to contact a pastor who has a “pass” to conduct Sunday prayer in the jail and accompany him. The official even gave me the pastor’s number. I was grateful for the opportunity and spent one and half hours in jail on Sunday morning, June 18 — without my name being even registered in the jail records!

The prayer with the innocents (along with two dozen other Christian inmates) was an unforgettable experience.

Of the seven innocents — Bhaskar Sunamajhi, Bijay Kumar Sanseth, Budhadeb Nayak, Durjo Sunamajhi, Gornath Chalanseth, Munda Badamajhi and Sanatan Badamajhi — all had been moved recently to the new jail, as it was closer for their families to visit them, except for Gornath, who has a daughter living in Phulbani.

As I sat down for prayer with the 30 Christian prisoners housed in Balliguda jail, flanked by two pastors, Budhadeb started the prayer with a loud proclamation — “Praise the Lord” — from the far left of the front row. On the far right was Bijay, interspersing the prayers often with cries of “Hallelujah.” 

As the prayer service led by the pastors progressed, Bhaskar, another innocent sitting in the front row, opened a shabby plastic bag and took out devoutly his precious possessions.

The Bible came first. Then he took out a crumbled notebook in which songs are written neatly. I noticed that each stanza of the songs had been written in the Odia language, with different color writing for each.

(Since he was illiterate when arrested, I was curious to find out how Bhaskar learned to write with magnificent writing. I was told that he had made use of his nearly nine years of detention to learn this skill.)

Bhaskar was also the finest and most passionate singer of all, while Durjo was equally passionate in singing along with a couple of spartan musical instruments being played by fellow Christian prisoners as they sang merrily the hymns.

As the prayer gathered steam, my eyes, too, grew wet, watching tears rolling down the cheeks of Bhaskar and Sanatan, who were seated in the second row.

But the most poignant sight was Munda, illiterate and mentally challenged, who seemed to be blind, and with his lips hardly moving. I felt furious at the crooks who have kept an innocent man — described by his illiterate wife Bandigudali as “dumb” because of his limited ability to speak and mental capacities — locked up as a murderer in jail. Shame on the police and the judiciary.

When I was asked to deliver the “sermon,” I decided to share with them an incredible anecdotal incident from Arunachal Pradesh state, bordering China, from my research on the flourishing faith there.

Mayawsya Krichiko, I told them, was an animist who was obsessed with puja rituals prescribed by animist priests.

Krichiko first tried to chop of the head of a woman as a sacrifice to propitiate the animist gods. The lady was lucky to survive, due to a timely intervention, and he spent a year in jail for the crime in the late 1950s.

Out from prison, Krichiko’s obsession with animist sacrifices made him do the unimaginable: The government contractor shot his two brothers and a nephew as a “human sacrifice” in front of his wife and son Sutik (who narrated the story to me).

Krichiko was put in jail, and Dr. David, who was doing double duty as a doctor to all prisoners and as a psychiatrist to the mentally ill, told him that he was not “mad,” but obsessed with pujas. He was told to repent, read the Bible regularly and pray to Jesus.

As Krichiko converted to Christianity, China invaded India in 1962. The jail at Tezpur was thrown open, and Krichiko returned to his village and built the first church in Teju. That is how Christianity reached Teju, which is now a Christian-majority area. 

“Mysterious are the ways of God,” I said. “Some may have committed mistakes, while others may be innocents. Don’t lose hope. Though you are innocent and languishing in jail, the whole world is more aware of Kandhamal and praying for you because of your continued suffering. The Son of God, Jesus, was crucified. ... You have been chosen as instruments to spread the message of Kandhamal people’s suffering and incredible witness. ... But for you, Kandhamal would have been forgotten.” Upon hearing this, they were thrilled and clapped their approval.

As the prayer came to a close, Bijay — the only one who has been to school among the seven innocents — stood up to thank me and all those who have been trying to raise awareness of their plight.

I was surprised when Bijay, an eighth-grade dropout who had passed a higher level exam under the district’s open school system in 2015 at the age of 52 while being in jail, urged me to convey their gratitude to the chief minister of southern Kerala state.

Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan — at the Dec. 13, 2016, release of the Malayalam translation of my book Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda? — made national and international headlines by calling for a new probe into the swami’s death.

With educated sons and kin of some of the innocents being my Facebook contacts, I felt happy that the innocents can be regularly briefed about what is happening outside in the pursuit of their freedom.

The prayer service in the jail left me amazed — I have never seen people pray so passionately.

Throughout the prayer, I felt that their faith has been only strengthened by more than eight years of incarceration in jail for being Christian.

I left Kandhamal the same evening, happy and thrilled with great memories of praying with my heroes, whom I first saw chained together in 2011 as if they were hard-core criminals — as if in movies — while they were being brought to the first track court for trial in Phulbani.

But the joy was short-lived.

When I tried to get some updates from Kandhamal a week later, I was disappointed to hear that three of the innocents — vocal Bijay, Budhadeb and Sanatan — had been suddenly moved out of Kandhamal to three different jails outside the district.

Many have been cautioning me that the tentacles of the ruling Hindu nationalist octopus would be on my trail since I had been accompanying the valiant Kandhamal Christians for years. There is no doubt about that now. Within days of my visit to them in jail, the innocent Christians — who have been together in Kandhamal jail for more than eight years — have been scattered. Now, seven innocent Christians are in five jails in four districts.

Anto Akkara is based in Bangalore, India.

He is the author of Who Killed Swami Laxmanananda?

Akkara has instituted an online petition calling for the Christians’ release.

Go to Release7Innocents.com for more information.