MUMBAI, India – On August 25, the Church in India marks Kandhamal Martyrs Day, commemorating the anniversary of the largest anti-Christian pogrom in the country’s modern history.
Kandhamal is a district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, where an orgy of violence descended upon the impoverished Christian minority in August 2008.
A series of riots led by radical Hindus left over 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and snakebites.
The mobs had been incensed by rumors that Christians had killed a local Hindu holy man. (It later emerged that the holy man had actually been assassinated by Maoist guerillas in the area.)
Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar told Crux the anniversary is a “commemoration of the simple faithful who lost their lives during the anti-Christian persecution.”
“This most painful incident had a far-reaching consequence on the lives of the people because of their faith in Christ. The faith in Christ has been deepened and strengthened in the lives of people. For this incident they feel great sense of pride in sharing the pain and suffering of Jesus, who suffered and died on the cross in order to redeem us,” the archbishop said.
“This day has been decided and dedicated as Martyr’s Day by Odisha Catholic Bishop’s Council (OCBC). On the occasion of Martyrs Day, we pay respect, homage and pray for the cause of martyrs of Kandhamal. May the words of Tertullian – “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church’’ – echo in our hearts and become a reality in our holy land of Kandhamal and in the archdiocese,” he said.
“As we observe the 13th anniversary of Kandhamal Martyrs Day. we fondly remember and pay homage to all those who suffered much agony and lost their lives for the sake of faith. They stand tall as an example and inspiration for all of us in living and witnessing Christian faith in this modern world. Let those who offered their lives for the sake of their faith in Christ, be granted eternal rest and may Almighty God grant comfort and consolation to family members, dear and near ones and to all of us,” Barwa continued.
The riots hit the archbishop close to home: Barwa’s niece, Sister Meena Lalita Barwa, a Catholic nun of the Servite order, was in Kandhamal when she and a local priest were dragged into the streets by frenzied attackers shouting, “Kill Christians!”
She was raped by at least one member of the mob before being paraded half-naked through the streets to the howls of the crowd.
Speaking to Crux, Sister Meena said she is now living a “normal and happy life, because the bond I have with Jesus my master is strong.”
“I am not a perfect human; I am only fragile, but I realize that I need to strive for that,” she said.
“As we mark 13 years of struggle for peace, for justice, for equality and to live with dignity and respect, I remember the martyrs of Kandhamal and pay tribute to them. My concern and support for the brothers and sisters who suffered and continue to suffer even now. I remember those who put their lives into risk and help the people of Kandhamal to put things right to make life better,” Sister Meena continued.
Father Purushottam Nayak a priest from the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, was appointed by Archbishop Barwa to research and prepare a dossier on those killed in the 2008 attacks, a process before formally initiating the cause of their martyrdom and sainthood at the diocesan level.
“We have a list of 105 martyrs, of which there are over 25 Catholic victims; the rest include Christians of other denominations, as well as Hindus, Muslims and more, killed because they helped, hosted and defended their Christian brothers and sisters,” the priest told Crux.
“The diocese wants to honour non-Catholics and non-Christians because it recognises and appreciates the sacrifice of their lives out of love,” Nayak explained.
“We hope to complete documenting by October and submit to Archbishop Barwa, who will then submit the dossier to Cardinal Oswald Gracias,” he added. Gracias is the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
The cardinal told Crux he supported the martyrdom cause for those killed in Odisha.
“I have personally met a few of the families in Kandhamal, and I am convinced from the testimony I got that there are martyrs these, so I am keen and hopeful,” Gracias said.
“To show my support, I have appointed one of the priests from the Archdiocese of Bombay – a canonist – to assist from the technical point of view and help in the whole process, so there is recognition of those who have done so much,” he added.
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 on reported crimes, or the perpetrators were not prosecuted.
The 315 cases concerned are instances in which reports were made to the police but were not followed through or did not result in prosecution of the offenders.
The court also said the compensations that were paid to some of the victims were inadequate and ordered restitution to be paid to anyone injured during the riots.
The Church is still trying to get the full provisions of this order enforced.
In addition, seven Christians have been jailed for the murder of the Hindu religious figure, despite the fact the Maoist rebels have admitted to killing him.
Gracias said the Church is still looking for justice.
“We forgive those who have hurt us and look to the future with confidence and hope. We are one family, citizens of our country, but there has been injustice done and we like justice to be done and those incarcerated unjustly should be released,” the cardinal said.
Archbishop Barwa agrees.
“We want to make it clear that long 13 years have been gone, but the victims are waiting for justice and compensation for the families and individuals,” he told Crux.
The archbishop’s niece says even after all this time, the Christians of Kandhamal still have hope.
“The people of Kandhamal have suffered so much, but they are putting all their trust in the Lord,” Sister Meena said.
“Suffering in itself is a grace. I see it as a challenge to grow out of it. The Christian community’s attitude towards what happened in Kandhamal in 2008 is not negative. They are hopeful and have a deeper faith. The tragedy has made them stronger. He words of St. Paul come to mind: ‘Who can separate us from the Love of Christ?’ The people of Kandhamal are living this,” she said.