As the 10th anniversary of the anti-Christian violence in eastern India’s Odisha state approaches, a local archbishop is calling for peace and reconciliation among all the people.
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar has planned to offer a solemn Holy Mass for thanksgiving, reconciliation and grace on August 25, the day that commemorates the massacre of Christians in Odisha by Hindu radicals.
The untold violence against the Christians of Odisha was largely centred in Kandhamal District, with Hindu extremists blaming Christians for the August 23, 2008 murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, despite Maoist rebels claiming the assassination.
Violence erupted two days later on August 25 and continued through in what is considered to be India’s worst anti-Christian persecution in 300 years. An estimated 56,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes and 5,600 houses and 415 villages were raided and set on fire. According to government figures, 38 people were killed and two women raped. Scores of people were injured and permanently maimed.
However, Church and social activists reported the destruction of almost 300 churches, plus convents, schools, hostels and welfare facilities. At least 91 people died, 38 immediately, 41 from injuries sustained in the violence, and 12 in police action.
Among those who suffered the outrage was diocesan priest Father Thomas Chellan, Handmaid of Mary Sister Meena Barwa and Divine Word priest Father Edward Sequeira. Another diocesan priest, Father Bernard Digal died later on October 28, 2018, due to serious injuries sustained in the August attack.
Resilience of Christians
Ten years on, "Christians live in harmony with the faithful of all other religions. This is why we want the event to be an opportunity for reconciliation and sharing, to pray and talk about peace and grace,” Archbishop Barwa told AsiaNews.
The Christians of Kandhamal had earlier faced violence but to a lesser degree, during Christmas of 2007, which analysts say was a rehearsal for the atrocities of August 2008 and the following months.
Early July, Archbishop Barwa accompanied by Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, the general secretary of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (CBCI), met Odisha chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, the interior minister and other state authorities. He said the leaders expressed support and goodwill for the commitment of Christians against violence, hatred and division.
According to the Divine Word archbishop, despite the persecutions, "we are truly grateful to the Lord because the number of faithful continues to grow and the faith of Christians is strong. We live together as brothers and sisters and we really have good relations with the local administration ".
"Kandhamal district,” he said, “has become a symbol of faith, hope and perseverance for the Church in India, which in turn has received abundant blessings from the sacrifice of the martyrs and suffering of the poor victims."
7 innocent Christians in prison
Archbishop Barwa said the meeting with Odisha’s authorities was also to remind them of the painful situation of the 7 innocent Christians who have been falsely accused of killing Swami Lakshmanananda and are now serving life imprisonment. The authorities assured the archbishop they would take care of the matter. "We pray to God so that He may soon give them justice and peace," the archbishop said.
An international online campaign initiated in 2016 to free the innocent Christians has so far garnered more than 50 thousand signatures.
In a press conference on held on Thursday, Anto Akkara the journalist who in 2016 launched online drive (www.release7innocents.com), invited everyone to sign the petition and obtain the release of innocent prisoners.
For each signature the site automatically generates four direct emails to the president of the Indian Supreme Court; to the office of the president of India; to the Director of the Commission on Human Rights; to the high court of Orissa.
Based on his findings after numerous visits to Kandhamal, Akkara has written several books on the 2008 anti-Christian violence. His 2016 book, “Who killed Swami Laxmanananda?” busts the myth of a Christian conspiracy behind the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda. The 7 men have been languishing in prison for nearly 10 years now. (Source: AsiaNews)