MUMBA, India — On August 25, Christians around India will be marking Kandhamal Day, commemorating the 9th anniversary of the worst anti-Christian attacks in India’s history, and some of the worst anywhere in the world.
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 roughly 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.
“More than ten thousand people will gather in solidarity in Kandhamal,” said Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar.
Barwa’s own niece, a Servite nun by the name of Sister Meena Barwa, was gang-raped during the violence and then paraded naked through the village in a final act of humiliation. A local priest, Father Thomas Chellan, who served along with her in Kandhamal, was savagely beaten.
The archbishop told Crux those gathering for Kandhamal Day are not there just to pray for the sacrifices of those who died and those who still struggle and suffer for their faith in the region, but to support the demands of the victims and survivors for justice.
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 archbishop said he and other Christian leaders want the judgement to be implemented.
On Wednesday, Barwa led an ecumenical delegation to see Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who recently won the 2017 Outlook Speakout Award for Best Administrator in India.
The archbishop did not comment on their conversation, but did say he gave Patnaik a framed image of Jesus Christ.
Since 2014, India has been ruled by the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has strong links to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militant Hindu nationalist organization.
Incidents of harassment against Christians have increased over the past few months across India, with various Christians being detained or arrested for “attempted conversion,” and places of worship being vandalized.
More recently, a spate of killings related to “cow vigilantism” have happened around the country. The slaughter of cows – which are sacred in Hinduism – is illegal in most parts of India, although beef is often eaten by some Dalits (low-caste Hindus previously called “untouchables”) and members of some religious minorities, such as Muslims and Christians.
Odisha is ruled by Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a secular party that has often joined in electoral alliances with the BJP. It is one of several states in India that has anti-conversion laws, which are often used to harass Christian ministers, teachers, or social workers.
Kandhamal has a population of around 730,000, about 80 percent of whom are “Tribals,” meaning members of one of India’s indigenous groups, and 20 percent “Dalits,” meaning the “untouchables” under the ancient caste system.
Both Tribals and Dalits have long been at the bottom of society in terms of income, literacy, and life opportunities, and, in one of the typical pathologies of poverty, tensions between the two groups are common.
The Christian population of the area is almost entirely Tribal and Dalit, and still suffers discrimination and harassment to this day.
Sister Meena, Barwa’s niece, has been a leading voice for justice for Christians in the area since her assault. She released a statement marking the 9th anniversary of the attacks, saying, “Life is not easy yet.
“On August 25, 2008, Father Chellan and I were attacked, how can I forget that day?” she said. “I remember this day with gratitude to God, who allowed me once again to live. My admiration, regards and solidarity [is] with all the people of Kandhamal who are victims, I believe, but who dare to move on.”
The religious sister said that although sexual assault victims are often stigmatized in Indian culture, she has experienced nothing but concern, admiration, understanding and respect.
“I met recently one of my friends after many years who said, ‘it is a completely new person I see.’ I experience more concern, understanding, love of my parents, my siblings, sisters in congregation, friends and all those who know me,” she wrote.
The nun says she remembers her brothers and sisters in Kandhamal every day.
“My wish and prayer is in the midst of suffering and pain may they grow into positive attitude and see God in everything,” she said.