Epicenter of Christian Persecution in India, Kandhamal Proves Tertullian Dictum

Vocations are growing among youth who spent days and months in jungles and refugee camps during the prolonged persecution.

L to R: Convert Bijay Kumar Pradhan stands outside of Christ Church Piserama; a group of widows of the persecution gather in Kandhamal at the Raikia church after their meeting on May 17. They are witnesses to the power of Christ.
L to R: Convert Bijay Kumar Pradhan stands outside of Christ Church Piserama; a group of widows of the persecution gather in Kandhamal at the Raikia church after their meeting on May 17. They are witnesses to the power of Christ. (photo: Anto Akkara photos)

RAIKIA, India — Church historian Tertullian penned the dictum: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” after chronicling the history of the early Christian Church at the time Roman Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and made it legal with the Edict of Milan in A.D. 313.

This adage is being literally demonstrated in the communities of the remote Kandhamal jungles of eastern Odisha state that have witnessed the worst persecution in modern Indian history, with the orchestrated anti-Christian violence of 2008 and subsequent harassment of Christian communities.

“My husband was hacked [to death] in Drepangia village, with nobody trying to rescue him, when a mob attacked him,” Pushpanjali Ponda, the widow of Christian pastor Dibya Sundar Digal, told the Register July 11. 

A group of people had come to her house in the town of Raikia in a mini-truck, asking for the whereabouts of the her husband, who had gone to Drepangia, 8 miles from their house, for pastoral service. 

It happened during the anti-Christian violence that engulfed Kandhamal following the mysterious murder of Hindu nationalist monk Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati in his ashram (hermitage) in Kandhamal on Aug. 23, 2008.

Touting the Hindu leader’s murder as a “Christian conspiracy,” Hindu extremists carried the body of the 81-year-old slain monk across Kandhamal in a “funeral procession” for two days, calling for revenge on Christians.

When Christians rejected demands to forsake their faith, nearly 100 of them were brutally murdered; 300 churches and 6,000 houses were plundered in the continuing violence, rendering 56,000 homeless. 

Thousands of Christians had to languish outside Kandhamal for years because they could not return to their villages after refusing to recant their faith, as demanded by Hindu nationalists who enjoyed impunity from prosecution. 

“Since there was no response from him [to cellphone calls] even in the night, I got scared. I walked to the village with my 8-year-old daughter, Monolisa. When we reached there, my husband’s body was lying soaked in blood on the road,” recounted the widow, who brought her husband’s dead body to Raikia with the help of Hindu youth.

“It was a dreadful memory. But now, I have no fear in going to Drepangia. Several [Hindu] families have become Christians there after the martyrdom of my husband, and they are friendly to me when I go there,” Ponda told the Register after a meeting in Raikia of widows of the Kandhamal violence.

The reason, Ponda pointed out, is that several people had healing experiences after praying at the spot where her pastor husband was murdered. Ponda herself was healed from near paralysis after she went there in 2014 with her cousins and joined the prayers.


Vibrant Persecuted Church

The vibrancy of the persecuted Christian church in Kandhamal was manifest when Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, which encompasses Kandhamal, visited St. Paul’s parish church at Balliguda on May 15 for confirmations and the silver jubilee of the parish priest, Father Clement Bagsingh.

Colorful traditional dancers enthused by buoyant tribal drum beats welcomed the archbishop to the solemn service held under tents, as the church could not the accommodate the large crowd.

As the faithful were awaiting the solemn procession to begin, a catechist of the parish brought in his Hindu friend and confided that the prominent Hindu leader is eager “to join the Church.”

“When our younger brother Rasanand was burnt alive, there were only around 40 Christian families here,” Rabindra Pradhan, a retired Indian soldier, told the Register from Gadragam village.

The youngest of the four Pradhan brothers, 28-year-old Rasanand became the first martyr of Kandhamal, when the young man, paralyzed by a stroke, was torched alive inside his house by a mob of hundreds that attacked the Christian families in the village during the orchestrated violence.

“The atmosphere here has changed altogether. Dozens of Hindus, including those who attacked us, have become Christians here,” Pradhan reported. 

The “Seven Innocents” of Kandhamal — Christians who were convicted on unsupported charges of the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda and who were released on bail by India’s Supreme Court in 2019 — reported that a Hindu who had been jailed for the anti-Christian violence of 2008 attended their regular prayer meetings inside the prison and had embraced the Christian faith upon being released.

Bijay Kumar Pradhan was a former disciple of the slain swami since the late 1980s. In 1992, Bijay and his friend Trilochan Pradhan were assigned to shoot a prominent pastor at a Christian convention at Raikia. 

“Though we had been trained in shooting and given a good gun, the trigger did not work when my friend tried to shoot the preacher. We went to nearby jungle and tried it on the trees, and it worked,” recounted Bijay.

“We sensed that there was something wrong, and this experience made us gradually embrace Christianity,” said Bijay.

“Swami used to tell us to destroy churches and banish Christianity, and he even sent Hindu leaders to call us back. But we never went back,” Bijay said. 

“We have more than 200 Christians in this church, and 90% of them are Hindu converts,” said Bijay, who approached a Christian schoolteacher with a special request for “Bible instruction” after his friend gave him the Gospels, which he found interesting when he was studying in college.

“Swami had come here with us and asked us to destroy the church,” Bijay recounted, standing in front of the new Christ Church at Piserama, to which he had come as an assailant in 1990s. “Now, I am manager of this church,” Bijay said proudly.

“Several of those who have attacked Christians here [in Kandhamal] are now Christians and spreading the message of love Christ has preached,” said Bijay, who is a contractor by trade.


Abundant Vocations

Kandhamal is indeed literally fulfilling the famous dictum of Tertullian, with vocations growing among youth who spent days and months in jungles and refugee camps during the prolonged persecution. 

While at Indore in central Madhya Pradesh state in March, this correspondent was invited by the superior of a formation house of nuns to address 50 nuns and novices there. Of the 29 novices present, 28 were from Kandhamal.