In what could seem simply Vatican business as usual, Pope Francis last month created a new diocese in the Indian state of Odisha and named its first bishop.
It’s anything but ordinary, however, because Odisha, formerly known as Orissa, was the setting for the worst anti-Christian pogrom in the early 21st century. In late 2007 and again in the summer of 2008, mobs of radical Hindus left 100 people killed, thousands injured, 300 churches and 6,000 homes destroyed, and 50,000 Christians taking refuge in a nearby forest, where more died of hunger, thirst and snakebite.
Bishop Aplinar Senapati of the new diocese of Rayagada says the main thrust of his mission in this battle-scarred territory will be evangelization.
“Evangelization is deepening the faith of Christians, transmitting the good news of Jesus through preaching and through our apostolates, [meaning] schools, health services, etc.,” he said.
Senapati knows personally the travails of Christians in the state, because he was at the epicenter of the riots in Kandhamal in December 2007. Violence flared up anew in August 2008 when local Hindus blamed Christians for the assassination of a Hindu holy man named Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
Investigations later showed that Saraswati actually had been slain by leftist Maoist guerrillas, not Christians, but that didn’t stop militant Hindu nationalists from taking out their frustrations on Christians, the vast majority of whom in the state belong to either the Dalits, meaning the “untouchables” under the old caste system, or the Tribals, meaning members of the country’s traditionally marginalized indigenous groups.
Senapati, who came back to Kandhamal in 2008 to help out with pastoral services, Masses and confessions, reflected on the horrors of that time.
“I visited many relief camps, and the pathetic conditions of our people caused me intense anguish and suffering,” he said. “So many people lost their lives. It was a deep wound for me.”
He described to Crux seeing his own cousin, another Catholic priest, whose legs were bleeding from hiding in the forest.
Even knowing the attitudes and history of the state does not dissuade Senapati from his duty and desire to preach and serve the new diocese.
“I will serve all people, Tribals, Dalits, all my people without discrimination,” he said. “We are all children of God.”
Ordained a priest in 1990, Senapatui’s new diocese has roughly 61,000 Catholics, and is a suffragan of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar led by Archbishop John Barwa, whose own niece, a Servite nun named Sister Meena Barwar, was raped and brutalized during the 2008 riots. The new territory includes some of the most impoverished sections of the country.
Father Ashok Kuamr Singh, a priest of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, said, “The creation of a new diocese and appointment of [Bishop] Senapati is a call to serve the brothers and sisters of the area and journey with their concerns with trust in God.”
Another Church leader, Father Ajay Kumar Singh, who coordinates the Church’s social service works in Odisha, expressed the hope the new bishop will help restore human dignity among the marginalized people of the state.
“I’ve known him personally for many years, and I know of his tireless work for the most vulnerable and marginalized,” Singh told Crux.
“The bishop was intensely involved in women’s empowerment travelling extensively from village to village to make them self reliant,” he said. “He is a good leader and a huge heart for the poorest and most vulnerable sections.”
Senapati is well aware that many Hindu nationalists have a viscerally negative reaction when Catholics talk about “evangelization,” seeing it as part of a Christian plot to subvert the traditionally Hindu identity of India, but he said he’s “not at all” afraid to promote a missionary spirit.
“It is our right, we are not doing anything wrong by evangelizing,” he said.
“I served 13 years in Kandhamal, and my Jubaguda parish was very close to the ashram of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, we passed each other quite often in our vehicles,” Senapati said.