MUMBAI, India – For survivors of one the early 21st century’s worst spasms of anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal in eastern India in 2008, the nine Christmases they’ve marked since have taken on a special meaning, as a reminder of the origins of the faith for which they suffered.
Arguably no one has reflected more deeply on that connection than Sister Meena Barwa, the niece of Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who was raped amid the violence and then paraded naked in the village by her attackers, in a final act of humiliation. Overall, the carnage in Kandhamal left at least 100 people dead, thousands injured, hundreds of churches and other Christian sites destroyed, and an estimated 50,000 people taking refuge in a nearby forest for weeks, where more died of snakebite, thirst and hunger.
Because the victims were not only Christian but also predominantly members of India’s tribal underclass, rebuilding is still a work in progress, and some victims who suffered injuries are still struggling with complications due to only rudimentary medical care.
Barwa said she finds herself thinking and praying over what happened to her in a special way during the Christmas season.
“After the incident, many times I celebrated Christmas alone with baby Jesus, and those moments that I spent with my master [have been] the best moments of my life I’ve been experiencing in exile ever since the incident,” she said, in a Christmas letter written for Crux.
After the attack, Barwa moved to a different location, under a different identity, in order to avoid reprisals as she sought to press charges against the men who assaulted her.
“Initially, it was difficult to hide my identity. I was known as a lay person with a different name, I had to move from place to place, from Delhi to Kanyamuari, not knowing people and the language,” she said.
“I continue to be the same even now. Other than my sisters, people do not know my identity, and I know I have to live like this till the end,” she said. “It is a cross for me, but for the love of my God, I do it. I cannot go home when there are functions, but all this has made me more strong and love God even more.”
“As Christmas is here, to some extent I am [once again] with the Lord, unnoticed, unwelcomed, and exiled into untold suffering.”
Barwa said he knows she’s not the only one experiencing hardship.
“My parents and family too undergo sufferings,” she said. “Whenever there is a family function, I cannot attend, as I will be recognized. I was unable to attend the marriages of both my younger brothers …. I could not be present and share their happiness, I could not go … it is a shame and a Cross for the entire family. Celebrations are not actually a celebration for the family, because my forced absence creates suffering for my entire family.”
“Even when my uncle became archbishop,” she said, “I could not attend any of the functions and celebrations and share their rejoicing.”
Barwa said her experience of the legal process surrounding her quest for justice is also harrowing.
“The rape case is still going on in the sessions court, and the entire process is a horrifying experience,” she said. “I’m recalling and reliving once again the suffering.”
For days prior to every hearing, she said, she’s unable to sleep, feeling “terrified and disturbed as to what questions the defense lawyer will ask … the defense lawyer asks all the uncomfortable questions, the questions offend and humiliate me, and I am even intimidated in the court.”
For that reason, she said, the image of the baby Jesus born poor and in a stable, essentially abandoned by the world, brings special comfort.
“At Christmas, I feel very close to Jesus, who was born for each of us and was rejected,” she said. “In the same way, though I am not worthy of the comparison, I offered my life to serve people as a religious, and because I’m a religious I was raped by those who hate the Christian faith.”
“This traumatic rejection and crushing humiliation makes me feel very close to Jesus,” Barwa said. “Jesus came for the suffering humanity. I am convinced that He is with me. I feel one among the suffering, but at the same time, I am filled with hope.”
“Life is not suffering in exile,” she said. “Life is beyond all this. I hope for Peace, Justice.”
Christmas brought a reminder that the threat of the kind of violence that erupted in 2018 remains very real, as Indian authorities tightened security at churches and other venues following a string of recent attacks on Christian targets in northern India.
Earlier this month, for instance, members of a militant Hindu group allegedly beat up a group of Catholic seminarians and priests in Madhya Pradesh state.