Remembering India’s Christian martyrs should be a Church priority

Remembering India’s Christian martyrs should be a Church priority

Remembering India’s Christian martyrs should be a Church priority

Christian organizations in India say Hindu extremists routinely destroy Christian buildings and prayer rooms and threaten Catholic religious such as nuns working to help the poor. (Credit: AP Photo.)

Survivors of sexual abuse who have summoned the courage to come forward have taught us many things, but one clear truth is that, in terms of its consequences, abuse is not an event, but more akin to a permanent condition. It’s not that abuse happens at a specific time and

Survivors of sexual abuse who have summoned the courage to come forward have taught us many things, but one clear truth is that, in terms of its consequences, abuse is not an event, but more akin to a permanent condition.

It’s not that abuse happens at a specific time and place, and then is over. Instead, its aftermath becomes a permanent part of victims’ lives, as they struggle with its psychological, emotional, and spiritual toll.

We’ve had two reminders this week that the same point applies to victims of other kinds of abuse, including anti-Christian persecution. For its victims, the lingering consequences are emotional and physical, including injury and disease, loss of property and income, imprisonment, and the threat of death.

Both reminders come from Kandhamal in eastern India, which in 2008 was the site of the worst anti-Christian pogrom in the world in the early 21st century.

For decades, India has seen a growing wave of Hindu nationalism that today dominates not only the federal government, but also several states and regions. In August, 2008, hostility toward the Christian “other” exploded in Kandhamal, leaving roughly 100 people dead, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 people displaced, many of them forced to hide in nearby forests where more died of hunger and snakebites.

The violence was carried out by mobs adorned with saffron headbands, a sign of right-wing Hindu militancy, and shouting slogans such as “Jai shri ram!” — victory to the Hindu god Ram — and “Jai bajrang bali!” — a tribute to another Hindu deity. Attackers wielded rods, tridents, swords, firearms, kerosene, and even acid.

The level of barbarity almost defies belief.

Parikhit Nayak, for instance, was an impoverished Dalit and a convert to Protestantism in a largely Hindu village. His fellow villagers killed him by burning his body with acid, slicing off his genitals, and then ripping out his intestines to wear them around their necks like a trophy. All the while, they forced his wife to watch.

We heard two echoes of those horrors this week.

One was a rally held March 3 in New Delhi to launch a “Free the Innocents” petition to liberate seven Christian men who have languished in prison since 2008, accused of instigating the violence by assassinating a local Hindu holy man. The charges are widely regarded as politically motivated, and an investigative journalist recently called the case a “travesty of justice.”

Last year, two police officials testified before an inquiry in Kandhamal that the charges against the men, six of whom are illiterate, were false, yet appeals to overturn their convictions have been repeatedly delayed.

Because it’s important that victims not remain anonymous, here are the names of the seven men.

  • Bijay Kr Sunseth, married with two young sons and four daughters
  • Gornath Chalanseth, married with a daughter and three sons
  • Budhadeb Nayak, married with three sons and two daughters
  • Bhaskar Sunamajhi, married with a six-year-old son who has never seen his father except behind bars
  • Durjo Sunamajhi, married with three sons, two of whom are manual laborers, and two school-age daughters
  • Munda Badmajhi, married with two sons and two daughters. His elder son was forced to leave school when his father was arrested and now works as a manual laborer.
  • Sanatan Badmajhi, married with two young sons and two daughters

The other reminder of Kandhamal’s unfinished business came on Friday, when Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, where Kandhamal is located, gave an address to India’s Catholic bishops conference.

Barwa’s own niece, Meena, who’s a Servite nun, was serving in Kandhamal in 2008 and was raped during the attack, at one stage losing consciousness because of the savage beating she endured. To this day, no one has ever been arrested or prosecuted for the assault.

Barwa described the efforts of his small and perennially cash-strapped diocese to help victims, both in spiritual and material terms. He also put his finger on areas of unmet need, including injuries that are still untreated, Church properties that are still in need of repair, and justice still to be done in terms of prosecuting perpetrators.

Of the 100 people murdered in August 2008, there have been only 30 prosecutions and just two convictions.

While much of that may be beyond the ability of the Church to control directly, one step that could be taken immediately is to fast-track the beatification and canonization of the martyrs of Kandhamal.

One such martyr is the Rev. Bernard Digal, who was beaten by Hindu extremists while trying to rescue another elderly priest and was left for dead. He somehow survived and was airlifted to a Mumbai hospital, where he lasted for a month before succumbing to a fever contracted during his ordeal.

While formally declaring victims such as Digal saints won’t fix the immediate material and spiritual problems faced by survivors, it will at least ensure that their witness is not forgotten, and it will shine a spotlight on the ongoing consequences of the persecution they suffer.

Pope Francis often talks about the “ecumenism of blood” that anti-Christian persecution creates, driving Christians toward deeper unity because of the realization that denominational differences mean nothing to their persecutors.

There’s probably no better place on earth to make that point than Kandhamal, and one hopes that Barwa’s plea to remember the martyrs does not fall on deaf ears.

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