Persecuted Indian Christians Evangelize…by Forgiving
Editor’s Note: During the Year of Faith, when Catholics from all walks of life were called to participate in the “new evangelization,”’ a question naturally arose: What sort of evangelization works? Are there any proven programs, that have demonstrated the power to attract people to the faith?
Last year Crossroad Publishing asked me to address that question: to find successful initiatives in evangelization and collect reports on them. The result of that work is a book entitled When Faith Goes Viral, which was officially released on November 21. The book is a collection of stories, drawn from all around the world, about projects that are quite different in many ways, but similar in one: all have demonstrably brought people closer to the sacramental life of the Catholic Church.
By prior agreement with the publisher, the Catholic Culture site has been granted permission to post chapters from this forthcoming book temporarily, one at a time. These chapters will not become part of the Catholic Culture archives; readers who want to refer back to them should plan to purchase the full book.
We have already posted my own Foreword, the Introduction by Father C. John McCloskey III, and chapters by John Burger (on the work of FOCUS, the Fellowship of Catholic University Students), Emily Stimpson (on the Language and Catechetical Institute in Gaming, Austria), Deirdre Folley (on Mother Angelica and the founding of EWTN), Angelique Ruhi-Lopez (on the Navidad es Jesüs program in Peru), Moses Muthaka and Conor Donnolly (on a program for Kenyan “street kids”), myself (on the use of organ music to lure unchurched Russians), Matthew Rarey (on the beauty of the liturgy at an extraordinary parish in Chicago), and by a pseudonymous author who described the challenges facing a Catholic pastor in an Islamic nation. We now offer the 9th chapter, on the persecution of Christians in India’s troubled Khandhamal region, and the astonishing witness of the Christians under duress.
- Philip F. Lawler
Persecuted Indian Christians Evangelize…by Forgiving
by Anto Akkara
So in the present case I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this undertaking is of men, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. (Acts 5:38-39)
In late 2008, a brutal wave of anti-Christian violence engulfed the jungles of Kandhamal, in India’s Orissa state. Churches were desecrated and destroyed, Christians hounded out, their houses were plundered and torched. While more than 100 Christians became martyrs for their faith, hundreds of others were brutally tortured for refusing to renounce their faith. Over 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses were reduced to ashes or badly damaged, leaving more than 56,000 Christians homeless. Most of the survivors became refugees in the jungle region. Yet Christian faith shone through the ashes of burnt churches and homes.
Organized violence against Christians has been reported in several parts of the world at the dawn of the third millennium. China, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Nigeria, North Korea and Pakistan stand out among the countries that have witnessed severe persecution of the followers of Christ in recent times. The casualty figures in Kandhamal were lower than those in Nigeria or Iraq. But the diabolical violence in Kandhamal remains in many ways unique. Unlike in other regions where Christians were simply targeted for attack, the Hindu fundamentalists’ goal in Kandhamal was not merely to harm the Christians or drive them out of the region. Their target was to force the Christians to renounce their faith and embrace Hinduism.
Thousands of Christians fled to the jungles in August 2008, seeking shelter before marauding Hindu mobs could lay hands on them. The anti-Christian pogrom began when Hindu fundamentalists issued a declaration: “Christianity is a foreign rligion, and only Hindus can live in Kandhamal.” This announcement was an angry reaction to the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda, a fundamentalist leader. Swami Lakshmanananda had preached that Christianity must be banished from Kandhamal. When he was killed, his followers blamed Christians for the crime—wrongly. Soon the murder was traced to a Maoist group, but that fact did not change the behavior of the Hindu militants, who felt that they were carrying out the wishes of their slain leader by launching mob violence against Christians.
Dozens of defiant Christians who were caught by the roving Hindu mobs were tortured and brutally murdered. Hundreds of others were coerced to undergo a “reconversion” ceremony, made to drink cow-dung water to “purify” them, and recite dreadful oaths swearing that they would never return to the churches. This pogrom targeting Christians was carried out with clinical precision in village after village, with government officials turning a blind eye. The Hindu fundamentalists felt triumphant.
However, undaunted by the threats, many valiant Christians stood by their faith. Instead of returning to their villages to be “reconverted” into the Hindu fold, they preferred to languish in the squalor of refugee camps and urban slums as true followers of Christ. Even among the more than 2,000 Christians who underwent “reconversion” under death threats, most soon returned to their Christian faith.
The Orissa government, which was under the control of a Hindu nationalist party, virtually endorsed the anti-Christian campaign, shutting down the refugee camps and dumping homeless Christians near their villages, in desolate areas where they were at the mercy of the mobs. Still the Christians held firm in their faith—and even continued to bear witness by showing no ill will toward their tormenters.
While the orgy of violence went on for weeks, persecution of various kinds continued even after three years. Hundreds of Christians were languishing outside their villages even in 2012 as they were not prepared to meet Hindu fundamentalists’ precondition for getting back their homes and normal lives—renouncing their faith.
The orchestrated violence in Kandhamal was the most painful episode in the history of Christianity in India. But it may also be the most glorious moment for Christianity in India since St. Thomas the apostle brought the faith to India in 52 AD. The unwavering witness of the Kandhamal Christians under brutal persecution has started melting even the hardened hearts of those who had tried to banish Christianity from the region. Stunned by the steadfast faith of the persecuted Christians, dozens of Hindus—including some who participated in the brutal assaults in 2008—have already flocked to the churches, as pagan Romans once did when they witnessed the steadfastness of the martyrs in the Colosseum.
Ironically, the Indian persecution is in one way worse than what happened in Rome: it occurred in a country that loudly proclaims the freedom of religion, and promises believers protection in its constitution.
A Martyr’s Village Becomes a Magnet of Faith
Two dozen Christians were dancing excitedly to the tune of hymns on a Sunday afternoon. It was New Year’s Day 2012, in Gadragam village, and the celebration took place among the ashes where a disabled Christian youth named Rasanand Pradhan had been burned to death—the first Christian martyr in Kandhamal.
“When we realized that Rasanand was left behind, we could do nothing about it,” recalls Rabindra Pradhan, the victim's elder brother. “The memory of the house going up in flames, with Rasanand inside, still haunts me.” But the death of the young man has left another legacy, his brother said.
“Our people are no more afraid. They are ready to profess their faith boldly,” said Rabindra. “The martyrdom of my brother has not gone waste. Half a dozen Hindu families are now regularly attending our worship,” he continued. He proudly pointed out among the Christian crowd a retired Indian soldier who had have been moved to join the Church.
Kartick Behra, a Hindu who has been attending church service in the village for a year, observed: “We have been inspired by the faith of these people. So we decided to become Christians.” Behra, a poor farmer, began coming to the church when he fell sick, and reports that the illness soon left him. He once considered Christians a threat; now he sees them as friends. “Many more (Hindu) families here now want to become Christians,” said Behra, whose wife and four children also now attend church regularly.
Hippolitus Nayak, a retired government official and a Catholic, had a pleasant surprise on the the same New Year’s Day. Lakhno Pradhan, a local Hindu fundamentalist leaders, who had led mob attacks on Christians and churches around Tiangia, greeted him at his door with a flower.
“He apologised to me for what the Hindu mobs had done to the Christians,” said Hippolitus cheerfully a few hours after the meeting, as he arrived at the rebuilt church for Mass. He added: “Many of the Hindus who used to keep away from us have started interacting with us now. Earlier they used to turn their faces away. There is certainly regret among them for the atrocities committed on us.”
Nayak, whose own house had been destroyed in the anti-Christian violence, reported that several of the people now regularly attending Sunday Mass in Tiangia were among the Hindu witnesses to the brutal murder of several Christians who refused to renounce their faith.
“Coming to the church gives me peace of mind. Nothing is going to change my decision,” said Jamboti Digal, while rushing to get to Sunday Mass. The widow from Gudribada village said that “seeing the faith of these people” had moved her to look into Christianity. Then she peeked in the church and saw that the liturgy was starting—and ended the interview.
Among the Hindus in Kandhamal who have been attracted to the Church after the violence, some were not only witnesses but participants. “I was forced to join the mob to destroy Christian houses and the church. After that, I felt that I had done something wrong and had no peace of mind,” admitted Bony Pradhan. “Along with my wife, I decided to become a Christian.”
A Persecutor Becomes a Christian
Some more active persecutors tell similar stories. “We harassed them and destroyed their houses. But they have no hatred or anger against us,” said Junos Digal, a member of the mob that attacked Christian targets. Squatting on a mat, with a Bible in front of him, he continued: “They are still suffering. But they have no complaints and they are living happily. There is certainly something special about how their faith enables them to overcome difficulties. This has brought me here. If Jesus could influence people’s lives to such an extent, I would prefer to be a part of that faith,” Digal said.
Asked whether he was worried that other Hindu fundamentalists would not turn their ire toward him for betraying their cause, Digal gave an interesting reply: “Many of us were misled. Now they will accept the reality. I am not worried about that.” Junos's wife, Sailama, embraced Christian faith before he did. She said simply: “My conscience made me take this decision.” She too is unworried about a possible angry reaction from militant Hindus. “ God will protect us,” she says. “If we live, we live for Christ and if we die, we die for Christ.”
The entry of more than a dozen such new converts to their congregation brought joy and comfort to the Christians who had held to their faith amid persecution. “In our suffering, our faith has been strengthened,” said Jayanti Digal. “Even when we were suffering, our faith kept us going. Now we are glad that even those who attacked us have started embracing our faith,” she said.
Rupara Digal, who had been the Hindu priest of nearby Puisaru village, joined with three other families to become Christian in June 2010. “One of them surrendered this axe here,” said a Protestant pastor, showing the traditional wide-faced axe that is used for Hindu animal sacrifices. This axe, he added, had been used for generations—perhaps even for the human sacrifices that were prevalent in Kandhamal jungles long ago.
Similar sentiments were heard at Mokabali village. Sitting inside a mud-thatched church, Mithun Digal narrated how he along with his wife, with 16 other Hindus of the village, embraced Christianity. “I have seen the violence and their suffering. Yet they have not given up their faith. So I decided to embrace their faith,” reasoned Mithun.
Rajnikant Digal, another convert, said: “Fear of God is behind my change of faith.” Despite their suffering, he found the Christians were happy and loving. “I wanted to experience the same joy,” he added.
Rajnikant too found that local Christians were ready to accept him and his family despite what they had suffered. “We are happy now as we have more people to pray together,” says Roopa Digal, an Evangelical Christian whose home was burned down and rebuilt in January 2010 with support from the Catholic Church. “This gives us greater confidence.”
Conversion Can Be Illegal
The Kandhamal government had assigned the major Christian denominations to coordinate the reconstruction of destroyed or damaged houses in the region. The Catholic Church took up the work in the areas of Raikia that were worst hit. During the distribution of building material, Church officials decided to reach out also to dozens of Hindu families of the dalit (lower caste) class whose houses had been damaged earlier.
“Many of them are coming to us, saying that they want to become Christians,” reported Rev. Bijay Kumar Pradhan, who was coordinating the Catholic housing program. These Hindus were impressed by the concern the Christians had shown them. “Forgiveness has its effect,” said Rev. Bijay. But he promptly added that he cautioned these Hindus that the Church was not rebuilding their houses to lure them into Christianity.
“We are happy that God is melting the hardened hearts in Kandhamal now,” said Rev. Prabodh Kumar Pradhan, confirming that three prominent Hindus approached him with a request to be baptised. However Rev. Prabod, who took over as vicar of the Raikia parish in 2011, told them that one cannot become Christian overnight. He asked them to wait to see if they were serious about their decision to embrace Christianity. He also reminded them that they had to attend catechism classes before they could be baptized.
With Hindus applying to embrace the Christian faith all across Kandhamal, the clergy is treading cautiously. “We have to be careful as the law could put us in trouble,” said Rev. Pradhan. “We also need to ensure that they are serious, and not laying a trap for us.”
Under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, those changing their faith and religious leaders undertaking the conversion ceremony have to seek prior permission from the district executive. Accepting Hindus into the Church without this prior permission from government officials would make both the converts and the priests who welcomed them subject to prosecution.
Playing by the Rules
The fire-scarred Capuchin seminary compound at Barakhama witnessed an unprecedented event on December 18, 2011. As many as 64 Hindus, belonging to 13 families, including adults and children, were baptized in the singed hall of the seminary, with prior permission from government officials under the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act.
“We did not want the government officials to harass us later. So we told them (the converts) to inform and get (prior) permission from government officials before the baptism,” explained Rev. Robi Sabhasundar, a priest of the Balliguda parish in which the Capuchin seminary is based. “It was a memorable event in the context of the violence.”
“We have the freedom to choose our faith and we decided to exercise it to stop our persecution,” said one of the newly baptized Christians, Jalandhar Digal, in July 2012. The converts came from Melsikia, a little village about five miles from Barakhama. For years these dalits had been living in Melsikia, side by side with over 150 other Hindu families. But the upper castes often treat the dalits as untouchables, and when the Hindu supremacists rose in anti-Christian violence, these dalit families also felt the pressure. Jalandhar Digal recalls being told: “You are not Hindus. We don’t want you to live among us.”
“They even destroyed our houses,” Jalandhar says. “Since we were few in number, we could not challenge them.” So the 18 families built new homes in a forlorn forest area, where not even a mud road reaches their settlement. “All of us held a meeting and decided to become Christians,” said Lupara, another convert. Of the 18 dalit families, 13 became Catholic while the other five joined a Pentecostal church.
Rev. Gregory Jena, superior of the Capuchin centre, said the intimidated dalits of Melsikia first established contact with a Catholic layman who was taking care of the forsaken Capuchin complex. When the Capuchin priests returned to the seminary, the contact became more regular. “We visited them frequently and started giving them catechism classes and conducting prayers with them. On feast days, they used to come (on bicycles) to Balliguda church to see how the Catholics practiced their faith. It was only after nearly two years of preparation, we decided to baptize them and insisted on getting the permission from the government.”
But the road to conversion was not an easy one. The moment the Hindu Kandhos heard that the dalits were planning to embrace Christianity, persecution started anew. “Even the women prevented us from drawing water from the village well. They stopped employing us to work in their fields. They would not allow us to collect firewood from the forest in their area. Sometimes, they would threaten and even abuse us,” Puninga Digal, a mother of two, said. The harassment eased only when the dalits lodged a complaint with local police.
Although the government officials in Balliguda were taken aback when the dalit families insisted on becoming Christians, the officials made no attempt to threaten or dissuade them.
All Manner of Evil against You
Hindu fundamentalists in Dakka village near Barakhama were incensed when Londo Mallick, the richest farmer of the area, embraced Christianity in July 2011. The tribal community of over 400 Hindu families had reason to be angry with the 45-year old farmer. He had even destroyed the puja (worship) altar at which traditional animal sacrifices had been held for years—in the courtyard of his house, since as he headed the puja committee. “They were angry with me for becoming a Christian and suddenly stopped interacting with me,” Mallick said in July 2012.
For Mallick the path to conversion began with a loss of faith in Hindu worship: “My wife Sakuntala was sick and I took up the responsibility of conducting the puja in the hope of her recovery 13 years ago. But her condition only got worse over the years and she was on the verge of death. I heard about people getting healed in (Christian) prayer meetings. I took my wife to a three-day prayer meeting and Sakuntala got well all of a sudden in June (2011). Then we decided to become Christian.”
The next month Mallick submitted to government officials a declaration that his family wished to change faith. “My conscience also pricked me as I had led the local Hindus to destroy Christian houses during the violence in 2008,” he said. “During the prayers, I prayed for forgiveness, as I had also burnt Bibles during the violence.”
With local Hindus imposing a ‘social boycott’ against him and refusing to work in his fields, the only consolation for Mallick was the support of four Christian families in his village. He had endeared himself to these Christians during the violence as he had prevented the Hindu mobs from assaulting them and plundering their properties, since they had been trusted laborers on his farm for years.
Enraged over his leaving the Hindu fold, local Hindu fundamentalists were eagerly waiting for an opportunity to teach Mallick a lesson. A chance came their way when an 11-year-old girl was accidentally killed by a friend who was cleaning a hunting rifle Mallick had lent to him. Half a dozen Hindu fundamentalists gave testimony to the police that the Christian convert had purposely lent the gun so that the man could kill the girl. The police arrested Mallick and charged him as a partner in the crime.
“While in jail, I prayed earnestly, and God worked a miracle. I was released after six days,” said Mallick with his eyes gleaming. “We were all praying for him when he was in jail,” said Nirmal Digal, who is himself a convert and now acts as a Pentecostal pastor. He arranged for a lawyer to defend Mallick, and soon the accused man was released.
While Hindu fundamentalists persisted with the ‘social boycott’ against Mallick, some Hindus villagers secretly approached the bold convert seeking his advice on how they, too, could become Christian. Even before Mallick completed the first anniversary of his baptism, other villagers had begun attending prayer services in his house. “More Hindus will surely join us soon,” said Mallick.
Hearts Are Melting, One by One
Bamdev Kanhar was a typical Christian-baiter in Kandhamal. He had joined with armed mobs that were despatched by Hindu fundamentalist leaders to attack St. Peter’s parish in Pobingia at Christmas in 2007. Since they could not lay hands on the parish priest, Rev. Prasanna Kumar Singh, they torched the church. Bamdev had even threatened local Hindus who had alerted the pastor, enabling him to flee in the nick of time.
Rev. Prasanna had to flee Kandhamal a second time in August 2008. Two months after his return, 33 year-old Bamdev knocked on the door of the pastor’s room in the night. Rev. Prasanna was taken back when he saw Bamdev at his door. Realising the tension on the face of the priest, Bamdev said: “Father, don’t be afraid. I have come to apologize to you.” The Hindu fundamentalist leader knelt before Rev. Prasanna and begged for pardon for the attack on the church.
“Bamdev has certainly undergone a change of heart and given up his aggressive attitude to the Christians,” said Rev. Prasanna in July 2012. Months after the apology, Bamdev visited Rev. Prasanna again—this time openly, during daylight hours. He had brought a special papaya plant that yielded high-quality fruits and asked the priest to grow it in the church compound. Since he had received it from his hostile neighbour, Father Prasanna took extra care to nurture the plant. When Archbishop Cheenath visited the Pobingia parish in October 2010, Father Prasanna presented the 'first fruit' from this special papaya plant to him and narrated the story behind it.
Touched by this tale, Archbishop Cheenath asked Father Prasanna to give a papaya from the same plant to Bamdev. “He could not believe that, when I told him that the archbishop asked me to present him a papaya. Soon he was in tears,” Father Prasanna recalled.
Sitting near the papaya tree that he had given to the church, Bamdev gave his own reflections: “I had been thinking a lot about the vandalization of the church. There were beautiful trees and plants around. We destroyed everything. Whatever happened here is wrong. I wanted to do penance for it. So, I gave the papaya plant to the church as symobol of my repentence.”
Earlier Bamdev had proclaimed his remorse at a “peace meeting” of two dozen local Hindu and Christian leaders, convened by government officials to ward off a new outbreak of anti-Christian violence in the days leading up to Christmas in 2010. At this meeting, Bamdev surprised the Hindu fundamentalists present, urging them to mend their ways and to stop harassing the Christians. “God will punish those who commit the crime of attacking churches and Christians,” Bamdev bluntly warned. However, Bamdev gave no hint at that meeting that his change of heart could be traced to the sudden death of a Hindu who had taken part in an earlier attack on St. Peter’s church, in Christmas 2007.
On that occasion, after setting fires in the church, rectory, and an attached student hostel, some of the assailants climbed on top of the concrete roof of the church. They started chipping with metal cutters at the foot of the 15-feet high cross on the roof, saying that they could not tolerate the sight of a big cross standing on top of the church. As they chipped at the base, one of the hooligans scoffed at the cross: “Jesus, if you are God, why don't you come out instead of hiding inside the cross?"
The next evening, two of these same hooligans, who were brothers, had a drinking bout and began a quarrel. In a fit of rage, the younger brother stabbed the elder to death. The victim was the same young man who had mocked Jesus on the cross; the killer, his brother, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Bamdev was deeply affected by the murder. “God will punish those who desecrate holy places,” he said. “Many Hindus here are talking about it.”
Soon Bamdev was regularly visiting the restored church which he had helped to torch, bringing flowers and donations to the priest along with his own prayer intentions.
A few days before Christmas 2010, Bamdev stunned Rev. Prasanna with a question: “Father, are you afraid of inviting me for Christmas service?” That innocuous request made the priest’s spine shiver, as Rev. Prasanna was reminded of his nightmare flight through the jungle to escape the mob that had attacked the church in Christmas 2007. Rev. Prasanna told Bamdev that only Christians attended the church services, and so he saw no point in inviting him. But the priest could not believe his eyes when he found Bamdev among the faithful in the offertory queue, holding in his hands a basket full of fruits and flowers, during the midnight Christmas service.
Now Bamdev is edging close to Catholicism. “I have a rosary with me,” he says. “I wear it sometimes to the temple also, and pray with it through I do not know any formal Christian prayers. Holding the rosary in my hands, I pray often in the night for peace and goodwill in the world.”
‘God’s Own People’
“I can only say they are God’s own people,” remarked Archbishop John Barwa on New Year's Day 2012 during his pastoral visit to the troubled Kambhamal region. “God’s plans are beyond our comprehension. What happened here was very painful. It was not a curse. It is turning out to be a blessing. God has also blessed me to be with these valiant people,” said Archbishop Barwa, who took charge of the persecuted church in Kandhamal in April 2011.
Asked about the enormous reconstruction task that lies ahead of him—with hundreds of broken houses, churches and institutions lying unrepaired even after three years, Archbishop Barwa responded: “When the Israelites were in the desert, God took care of them. We need not worry about anything. Our call is to remain faithful to God. That is what the Kandhamal people have done. Despite all their suffering, our people have held on to their faith.
“The bloodshed and the (number of) martyrs here may be less compared to those who died in the Colosseum. But the number of Kandhamal Christians who have suffered for their faith remains very high.
The special fast-track courts that were set up in Kandhamal to try those accused of leading the anti-Christian violence have regularly been acquitting even those charged with brutal murders. But when asked whether the Church planned to strengthen its legal effort to ensure justicee for the victims and their families, the archbishop deflected the question. “We believe in nonviolence, forgiveness, and conversion of hearts,” he said. “Punishment will not make one mend his ways.”
“We firmly believe that God’s message of love can melt the hardened hearts,” explained Archbishop Barwa. “Forgiveness can change people.”
Anto Akkara is an award-winning journalist covering religious concerns in South Asia. His book, Shining Faith in Kandhamal (Asian Trading Corporation, 2009), offers many more such testimonies of faith on the part of valiant, persecuted Christians. This chapter is adapted from his book, Early Christians of the 21st Century.
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