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India’s Newest Martyrs

Christians Die for Their Faith in Troubled Orissa

BY ANTO AKKARA

REGISTER CORRESPONDENT

September 28-October 4, 2008 Issue | Posted 9/23/08 at 10:35 AM

 

BHUBANESWAR, India — An armed Hindu mob landed at the doorstep of evangelists Samuel and Daniel Nayak on Aug. 25, with an ultimatum: Denounce the faith or die.

“Do you want Christ or your life?” the mob leaders demanded of the Nayaks and five other members of the Nayak family. Unfazed, the brothers replied, “Christ is everything for us.”

Enraged, the Hindu fundamentalists hit two children in the house with iron rods, breaking their skulls. After pouring gasoline on the adults, the fanatics gave them “one more chance.” They stood firm and raised their hands in prayer.

Within seconds, five adults were aflame. Foreseeing that they might try to escape, the mob had poured gasoline on the outside walls of the house. The house was set on fire, reducing all seven members of the family to ashes.

History is replete with accounts of how the early Christians were persecuted for their faith under the Roman Empire. Many Christians in the troubled Kandhamal district of eastern Orissa state are being subjected to similar persecution in the 21st century — in the largest democracy on earth.

Rakesh Digal, a young Catholic working outside of Orissa, was on a vacation in his native Pupuria, a village near Udaigiri. When one of the roaming Hindu mobs spotted him, he tried to run away but was chased and caught. He was beaten and buried alive for refusing to renounce his faith.

When he asked why they were burying him alive, the Hindu assailants told him, “Jesus will save you.”

According to numerous first-person accounts, these are not isolated horror stories from the jungles of the Kandhamal district, where Christians account for more than 100,000 out of a population of 500,000. Church workers have already documented as many as 28 murders of Christians, who have lost their lives for their faith. Unconfirmed figures are still higher.

Apart from this, more than 4,000 Christian houses, along with dozens of churches and Christian institutions, have been emptied and torched in troubled Kandhamal. Half of the Christians have been forced to flee their houses to jungles or refugee camps since late August.

The orgy of violence was let loose by Hindu fundamentalists after Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, senior leader of Hindu nationalist groups in Orissa, was shot dead, along with five of his junior monks, by Maoist rebels who stormed his base the night of Aug. 23.

Even though the Maoists claimed responsibility, Hindu groups are convinced Saraswati’s murder was a Christian conspiracy, as the 85-year-old monk had carried out a vociferous campaign against conversion to Christianity in Kandhamal.

In fact, Christian targets across Kandhamal had been attacked last Christmas after an alleged altercation involving Saraswati’s motorcade took place at a Christian-majority village.

“Christians are being hunted out now. If they don’t renounce their faith, their life is in danger,” Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, said in an interview in Mumbai Sept. 6.

Archbishop Cheenath rushed to Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai after three seriously injured priests from Orissa were airlifted to the hospital.

“Now there is hardly anything [Church owned] left to be destroyed,” said Archbishop Cheenath. Kandhamal accounts for three-quarters of the 64,000 Catholics and 24 of the 34 parishes in the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar.


Priests on the Run

Hindu fundamentalists are on the lookout for anyone wearing clerical clothing, and all the parish priests, along with dozens of religious, have been on the run.

Father Prasanna Singh, vicar of St. Peter’s Church at Pobingia, who has been on the run since the night of Aug. 23, said that 34 of the 37 Catholic families in Pobingia have already undergone a forced conversion ceremony.

“That was the only way for Christians to remain in the village,” said the priest, who keeps changing his residence in Bhubaneswar, which he reached after spending a week in the jungle.

In many places, those Christians who have been forcibly converted are also asked to burn Bibles and join in torching churches or Christian houses to prove that they have forsaken Christianity, he added.

While Father Singh has been lucky to evade the wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists, Father Bernard Digal, procurator of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, remains under treatment at the Catholic hospital in Mumbai with fractured legs. Father Digal was severely beaten by Hindu fundamentalists and left to die in Kandhamal jungles on Aug. 26.

Father Digal had stopped for the night with his driver at the seva sadan (house of service) in Sankarakhol (about 150 miles from Bhubaneswar), where 73-year-old Father Cheralamkunnel Alexander was managing the parish, when the news of Saraswati’s murder came in.

He decided to stay with the elderly priest as the funeral procession of the slain swami traveled across Kandhamal for two days with a huge motorcade, and as Christians became apprehensive.

As the huge procession passed by the afternoon of Aug. 25, local Catholics reported that the Hindu fundamentalists wanted to burn the church and nearby convent. But they decided to torch these targets after the funeral.

“First they burned the convent just after the nuns left,” Father Digal said. “Before they reached our place, we also fled.”

The mob traced his van parked in a remote place and burned it while the priests and church workers fled into the jungles.

“Father Alexander was finding it difficult to walk to the jungle, and so I thought of getting a [motor] bike to take him out of Kandhamal,” recalled Father Digal.

Since he was familiar with the area, Father Digal, along with his driver and a local youth, decided to walk 10 miles to Padhampada, the nearest house of a priest, where there was a bike.

“From a distance, we could see the house was on fire, and so we moved to another Christian village,” Father Digal said.

With all the houses burned down in the village, Father Digal and his companions moved on.

Since it was dark, they decided to stop at a burned Protestant church at Dudurkagaon.

But they were found.

“I was sleeping inside a burnt [Protestant] church thinking nobody would come to the destroyed church. Then they came and started beating me up,” the 46-year-old priest recounted from his hospital bed.

“I had dozed off when they came, and my companions woke me up,” he said. “I could not run fast and fell into their hands.”

With all his strength, Father Digal pushed the assailants off and ran for his life through the bushes in total darkness. But after a few hundred yards, the mob managed to catch him and bash him with iron bars, leaving the bleeding priest to die in the jungle at Dudurkagaon village.

With his legs shattered, Father Digal remained in the jungle, motionless the whole night of Aug. 26, while jackals, smelling his blood, howled around him. The following morning, a passing boy heard his cries for help and informed local villagers, who carried him some distance and called the police.

Three weeks later, Christians are still fleeing the villages for their lives, said Sudhanshu Nayak, general secretary of the YMCA in Bhubaneswar, which is now hosting 500 Christian refugees. (He is not related to the Nayak brothers who were killed in August.)

More than 20,000 Christians have taken shelter in 14 refugee camps in Kandhamal.

With forcible conversion going on unabated in Kandhamal villages, Nayak said Sept. 18 that Christians who have not left their homes live in fear of the marauding fanatics who continue to attack Christian targets.

Because the police took little action against Hindu fundamentalists who looted and torched dozens of churches and Christian institutions last Christmas, “there is an air of immunity, and they feel emboldened to do anything now,” noted Nayak, whose mother, two brothers and sister with two children have taken shelter in a refugee camp in Raikia town in Kandhamal.

As Nayak said, “Unless the government deals with these thugs sternly, our people can never return to their villages.”

Anto Akkara is based

in Bangalore, India.