National Catholic Register


Christmas Persecution

Terror, Not Peace, Marks Holy Day in Indian Village



February 3-9, 2008 Issue | Posted 1/29/08 at 1:50 PM


BALLIGUDA, India — Christmas is a time of joy and peace. But for many Christians in an India jungle region, Christmas 2007 will haunt them the rest of their lives.

“What happened that evening was a nightmare,” recounted Sister Christa at the Mount Carmel convent on the main road of Balliguda in the Kandhamal region of eastern Orissa state. “We were preparing for Christmas when we heard the shocking news that churches were being attacked.” She spoke to the Register Jan. 5, standing near a burnt, headless statue of Virgin Mary at the entrance of the sprawling convent premises.

As a heavily armed mob of 400 broke into the convent, the nuns, Carmel Sisters of St. Teresa, hid under the staircase. The mob went on a rampage, reducing every valuable item in the sprawling center to ashes — from computers to the convent tabernacle.

The nuns’ complex housed a hostel for 120 poor girls, computer training center for 50 students and a free medical dispensary.

“When they spotted us, they wanted to drag the younger ones into the room and molest them,” recounted Sister Sujata, superior of the convent. Besides the four nuns, four young women including two novices were also in the convent.

“We prayed and held our hands together and resisted,” Sister Sujata recounted. Fortunately, the assailants let them go and the nuns jumped over the walls and fled to the jungles in darkness — at a time they should have been attending Christmas Mass in nearby St Paul’s church.

Federal police and army were posted in some of the volatile areas, and after a week in the jungles the nuns took refuge in local Catholic homes. But, that was only after Hindu fundamentalist groups had successfully carried out their agenda to terrorize the Christians in Kandhamal.

The attacks lasted four days and were carried out by Hindu groups such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), Bajrang Dal (Army of Hanuman) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers’ Organization). More than 70 Church targets were attacked by mobs in the Kandhamal district spread out over 579 square miles. The autonomous National Commission for Minorities in its independent report on the Orissa mayhem, said Jan. 17 that the widespread attacks on Christian targets were “organized and pre-planned,” and that the state government ignored the Christian appeals for security ahead of the violence.

Arsonists in the heart of Balliguda town reduced St. Paul’s Church as well as the adjacent St. Paul’s minor seminary to ashes.

“We are shocked that the police made no effort to stop the violence,” Father Prabodh Kumar Pradhan, rector of St Paul’s seminary, told the Register.

The torching of the big church centers happened right under the nose of the fire brigade, while unarmed police posted in front to the church remained mute spectators. Hindu fundamentalist leaders had reportedly visited the fire brigade and threatened to kill them if they tried to intervene during the attacks.

Bishops Denied

The orgy of violence began on Christmas Eve at Christian-majority Bamunigam jungle village after Hindus destroyed the traditional Christmas decorations put up by local Christians in the market. In the clashes that followed, 80 Hindu homes and 31 Christian homes were set on fire.

The local Catholic community had been keeping vigil around the Shanti Bhavan (home of peace) nursing home and leprosy center run by the Missionaries of Charity since they came to know of Hindu mobs attacking Church centers across Kandhamal district where Christians account for one-fifth of the half a million population.

“Police said there was nothing to worry about, and sent us home in the evening,” said Dujadhanu Mallick, head of the Sarsananda village, 31 miles from Balliguda. “But, when the mob of 500 people armed with lethal weapons came in the night, all of them [22 police officers] fled.”

The mob set the clinic and medical store of the charity center on fire. The four Missionaries of Charity Brothers running the center fled, carrying many of the sick with them.

The Church accounts for half of the more than 100 000 Christians in Kandhamal district. Five big churches, 48 village chapels, two seminaries, half a dozen hostels and four convents were destroyed along with hundreds of Christian homes.

Father Bernard Digal, procurator of Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, said that, according to initial estimates, Church properties worth more than 27 million rupees ($770,000) had been damaged in the jungles, besides the terrorization and massive displacement Christians suffered.

Hindu groups have dismissed the violence as spontaneous Hindu reaction to the alleged attack on Swami Loknananda Saraswati (who is known as the mastermind behind the anti-Christian propaganda in Kandhamal) at Dasingabadi village following the attack on Christians by Hindus at Bamunigam.

But Church leaders said the Christmas mayhem was pre-planned with Hindu outfits regularly carrying out marches across Kandhamal threatening Christians to give up their faith or leave, as India belongs to Hindus.

“Any government in its senses could have anticipated this orgy of violence,” said Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack Bhubaneswar with three quarter of his 64,000 faithful living in the Kandhamal jungles.

Archbishop Cheenath told a press conference Jan. 7 that Hindu groups had been frequently carrying out marches in the jungle areas threatening to kill the Christians unless they give up their faith. Despite Christian complaints to top government and police officials, the archbishop said, the government ‘did nothing to prevent the violence.

In fact, the press conference was convened jointly by the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and the National Council of Protestant and Orthodox Churches as the government was denying access to Church leaders and NGOs to visit the hounded Christians in the remote jungles and bring relief to them.

“I feel sad that I am helpless to reach out to my people in a situation like this,” Archbishop Cheenath said. Top government officials denied permission not only to Archbishop Cheenath but to Cardinal Telesphore Toppo, president of the bishops’ conference, who had rushed to Orissa Jan. 2 to meet the terrified Christians in the jungles.

“I am really disappointed by the government stance. We have every right to meet our people,” Cardinal Toppo said in Bhubaneswar before returning to New Delhi on his way to the Vatican.

“Our constitution says we are a secular country and freedom of religion is a fundamental right. But, where is that freedom?” Cardinal Toppo asked.

That question remains uppermost in the minds of Christians in and outside of Kandhamal.

Anto Akkara is based in

Bangalore, India.