By Robin Gomes
It was on August 25, 2008, that hell broke loose on the Christians of Kandhamal, with Hindu extremists attacking them for the August 23 murder of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, even though Maoist rebels claimed the assassination.
In the rioting by radical Hindus that went on unabated for months, some 100 people were killed, thousands were injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes were destroyed, and 50,000 people were displaced, with many forced to hide in nearby forests where many died of hunger and snakebites.
Eleven years on, Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, whose jurisdiction includes Kandhamal, says the faith of Christians is growing, the people have no fear, and “they can face any challenge with faith and trusting in God”.
“They burnt our people, our houses, our churches, but the fire of the Holy Spirit filled our people with a burning love for Jesus and the Church,” Archbishop Barwa told Crux.
Sr. Meena: “alive to thank Him”
Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, one of the victims of the persecution, remembers her Christian brothers and sisters of Kandhamal who “still suffer and have greater faith”. “Yes our faith and hope is stronger, knowing that God will never let us down,” said the nun of the Handmaids of Mary Congregation who is the niece of Archbishop Barwa.
She was raped by at least one man before being paraded, almost naked, along with a priest, Father Thoman Chellan. The frenzied mob had planned to behead and even burn them alive but the intervention of a police officer prevented the gruesome ordeal.
Speaking to Crux, the nun explained that during the attack, she experienced “total and real poverty in spirit and in action” as she had nothing to cover her body except for a piece of cloth.
“My chastity devastated,” she said, “I surrendered myself completely to God in obedience.” “God has healed me, purified me: I found security in Him, I experienced that I am His beloved child, I understood the meaning of suffering and love, I understood God’s love for me and my love for Him,” the nun said.
For Sr. Meena, Kandhamal Day is a “time to receive a pouring of grace from God and to be anchored by Him”.
Even though the incident remains a thorn in her flesh, she said, she does not want to cry and brood over it but to “thank God every day”. She is convinced to live “this life meaningfully and happily and thank God”. “I say this because He has kept me alive to thank Him. I know that God’s blessing is there in suffering itself.”
Springtime of vocations
Christians form some 20 percent of Kandhamal population of around 730,000. About 80 percent of the district’s people are tribals or members of indigenous groups, and 20 percent are low-caste “Dalits,” or former “untouchables”. Both have long been at the bottom of society in poverty, illiteracy, discrimination and harassment even today.
However, Archbishop Barwa said his Catholics are proud to be from Kandhamal and pointed to a large number of vocations from among them. “In nearly every religious congregation in India, there is at least one religious priest or sister from Kandhamal, or seminarian and novice/candidate from Kandhamal,” the archbishop told Crux.
“This shows that there is growing faith in Kandhamal, and this seed of faith is giving rise to a new springtime of vocations from Kandhamal to the Church in India,” he said.
“For the Church in Odisha and Kandhamal, it is a great sense of pride that our young boys and girls are happy to serve the Church in India through their vocational calling. They are unafraid, they are filled with zeal to serve,” Archbishop Barwa added.
Still awaiting justice
On behalf of individuals and families of the victims, the Catholic Church and Christian organizations are demanding justice and compensation for individuals and families of victims of the riots but are not very successful.
In August 2016, India’s Supreme Court ordered the state government to re-investigate 315 cases of violence reported during the riots, where police did not follow up or the perpetrators were not prosecuted. The country’s top court also complained about inadequate compensation to some of the victims and ordered damages to be paid to anyone injured during the riots.
Archbishop Barwa recently filed a review petition for those who have not received any compensation.
The archbishop has also appointed a priest to research and prepare a dossier on those who died for their faith in the anti-Christian violence Kandhamal, a process before formally initiating the cause of their martyrdom and sainthood at the diocesan level. After the diocesan process, the cases will be handed over to the Vatican for further examination and verification. (Source: Crux)