Reunion of Kandhamal Martyrs’ Kin

Families Remember Faithful Witness of Their Loved Ones’ 2008 Sacrifice

KANDHAMAL, India — Wives, husbands, brothers, sisters and children of the martyrs of the infamous Kandhamal persecution of 2008, irrespective of denomination, gathered together for the first time on Feb. 9.

The historic gathering was hosted by the Catholic Church at the renovated Divyajyoti Pastoral Center, ground zero of one of the worst arson attacks during weeks of unabated anti-Christian violence that began in late August 2008 in the remote Kandhamal district of eastern Orissa state.

The kin of more than 80 martyrs and others who lost their lives due to injuries from the orchestrated violence in 2008 were brought together by the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese.

“Violence is not the end. We need to draw inspiration from the martyrs’ faith. You, the loved ones of the martyrs, can keep it up,” said Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, director of the Church’s Odisha Forum for Social Action.

“This gathering of martyrs’ kin is a step forward in this regard,” added Father Singh.

Nearly 100 Christians embraced martyrdom in the violence that engulfed Kandhamal eight years ago, following the mysterious murder of Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008.

While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing of the Hindu leader, Hindu fundamentalists blamed the murder as a “Christian conspiracy” and targeted Christians.

Thousands of Christians were pursued by the mob and fled into jungles to escape being trooped into Hindu temples for reconversion rituals whose purpose was 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 the faithful refugees.

Dozens of Christians who defied the Hindu fundamentalists’ dictate for reconversion were burned alive, chopped into pieces and even crushed with rocks for their refusal to forsake their faith in Christ.

It was a poignant sight to see: relatives of the martyrs — most of them non-Catholic — lining up with tear-filled eyes to narrate the martyrdom of their dear ones at the gathering at the Catholic center.

Salomina Mantri was in tears and did not get up to speak. Finally, when the microphone was brought to her, with a choked-up voice and tears running down her cheeks, she shared how her son Kundan Mantri, a 20-year-old seminarian, was killed.

At home for the 2007 Christmas holidays, Kundan had gone to the market to buy medicine for his ailing father, Philip, who had lost a leg in a bus accident.

Kundan’s outing coincided with the Christian protest against the desecration of the Catholic church in Bamunigam. Police fired at the protesters, and Kundan died of bullet wounds while he was on the side of the road.

“When I heard the testimonies of these martyrs, the memory of my son came to haunt me,” the distraught mother told the Register.

Rabindra Pradhan, a Pentecostal retired Indian soldier and elder brother of 28-year-old paralyzed Rasanand Pradhan, who was burnt alive in their house, told the Register, “I am happy that we have been brought together for the first time. It is good that we could see the families of the martyrs together.”

Christudas Nayak, a Protestant Christian who lost his wife, Ramani, told the Register: “All of us should meet often.”

“That will strengthen our faith and bring out greater Christian unity,” said Nayak, who carried his blood-splattered wife in his lap away from an attack. As he watched, she was cut with swords when a mob attacked Christian families in the village of Rudangia for their refusal to give up their Christian faith.

Father Manoj Nayak, director of Jan Vikas (People’s Development) social-action center, pointed out that it was not easy to bring the families together, due to their remote living locale.

“This coming together for the first time would create a sense of belonging and strengthen the bond with one another,” said Father Nayak. “We pray for your loved ones — for their great sacrifice,” he added.

Father Santhosh Digal, spokesman for the Catholic Church in Odisha, told the Register about the Church’s plan of support for the families, “We plan to come up with a concerted plan to help them [martyrs’ kin] with regard to their social security [entitlements], education for their children and their livelihood options.”

He also spoke of the wider witness the dead have received.

“The Vatican and the world at large have shown interest, and efforts are being made by the archdiocese to push for [official] ‘martyr’ status for them.”

Said Father Digal, “We may not see the day when they will be declared as saints, but the efforts to make the process is worth it.”

Anto Akkara writes from Bangalore, India.

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