MUMBAI, India – A nun who was raped during an orgy of anti-Christian violence in eastern India in 2008 paid tribute on Wednesday to the archbishop who consoled her at the time, and who went on to become a champion of victims of religious and ethnic discrimination.
A funeral Mass for Archbishop Rapahel Cheenath, who led the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese from 1985 to 2011 and who died last Sunday at 81, took place Wednesday at Mumbai’s Sacred Heart Church. The service was led by Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Mumbai, one of Pope Francis’ closest advisers, with 16 other bishops and archbishops concelebrating.
It was in the Kandhamal district of Cheenath’s former diocese in 2008 that mobs of Hindu radicals descended on a series of rural villages, killing at least 100 Christians, injuring thousands, burning hundreds of churches, schools, social service centers and other Christian institutions, and driving more than 50,000 people to seek refuge in a nearby forest, where more died of hunger and snakebite.
During the funeral Mass, a tribute to Cheenath was delivered by Archbishop John Barwa, his successor in Cuttack-Bhubaneswar. The choice was itself a reflection of Cheenath’s legacy, since Barwa is a “Tribal,” meaning a member of India’s indigenous ethnic groups, one of the communities Cheenath had worked to emancipate.
Barwa said he’s already received requests to waive the normal five-year period to open a beatification cause for Cheenath, and said he hopes that one day both Cheenath and the Kandahamal martyrs will be declared saints.
When he was done, Barwa opened a blue envelope and read a letter from his niece, Sister Meena Barwa, a Catholic nun who was working in Kandhamal in 2008 when she and a local priest, Father Thomas Chellen, were dragged into the streets by frenzied Hindu attackers shouting, “Kill Christians!”
Barwa’s sari blouse was ripped off and she was raped by at least one of the men in the mob – she doesn’t remember the number of attackers, because at one point she lost consciousness — and then paraded through the streets of the village semi-naked, while the mob continued to howl.
Her note for Cheenath, which she described as a “token of love and homage to our leader, our father, and our guide,” was written in the local Odiya language and placed on his body in the casket.
In the note, Sister Barwa addressed Cheenath as Bappa, meaning “father.”
“Thank you for all you have done for the people of Orissa, especially the suffering people of Kandhamal,” she wrote, ending with a personal thanks for journeying with her in her struggles after the assault, consoling her, and helping her to initiate future plans and for supporting her since that day.
The Superior General of Barwa’s Handmaids of Mary, along with another sister from their congregation, were also present for the burial service.
“Archbishop Cheenath was a father figure, he consoled me after the incident,” Barwa told Crux. “I could see that he, too, was in pain and anguish over my violation.”
When they met in New Delhi after the assault, she said, “My archbishop did not speak to me at all, he was just continually present, sitting in silent and prayerful solidarity.”
In May of this year, knowing that Cheenath was in failing health, Barwa came to Mumbai along with four other sisters to thank Cheenath for his support.
“He held both my hands, prayed with me and blessed me, saying, ‘You are a great lady’,” Barwa said.
In his tribute, Archbishop Barwa hailed Cheenath as a great pastor and leader.
“You are a kind and compassionate shepherd of the Church of Odisha who stood with us in our struggles and sufferings, our joys and challenges,” he said. “You were a great personality, endowed with rare qualities and gifts.”
“You were a dynamic leader who rendered 42 years of life-giving service to us, the lost, the least and the last,” he said.
The region in which Cheenath served has large populations of both Tribals and also Dalits, meaning the “untouchables” under the old caste system, and he was known for promoting social development in those communities.
Barwa also praised Cheenath’s outspokenness on behalf of persecuted Christians.
“With courage and clarity, you stood for our justice in the time of Kandhamal riots,” he said, saying Cheenath “accompanied the survivors and victims with sympathy and dignity” and also gave voice to their demands.
Barwa noted that those demands included:
- Better organized and looked-after camps for the victims.
- Stopping the trafficking of women.
- Gradual rehabilitation of the victims.
- A right of return for the victims to their own homes.
- Adequate compensation packages for the dead, injured, and widows.
- Loans for the settlement of land.
- Stopping forceful conversions to Hinduism, and an end to hate campaigns.
- Compensation to churches and religious houses.
Archbishop Barwa noted that on Aug. 2, just 12 days before he died, Cheenath scored a final victory for the Kandhamal victims when India’s Supreme Court upheld his petition insisting on additional compensation.
“Our people in Odisha called you with great love, respect and reverence, Bappa,” Barwa said. “You were a true father to everyone.”
At the funeral Mass, Gracias called Cheenath “a giant in the Church and a leader of outstanding intellect.”
Cheenath’s impact, Gracias said, was felt “especially in Kandhamal, seeking relief and rehabilitation and tirelessly advocating justice.”