A decade on, anti-Christian riots inspire Indian Church

Church leaders tell widows that martyrs of 2008 Odisha violence are seeds that grow faith
A decade on, anti-Christian riots inspire Indian Church

Two widows of men killed in anti-Christian riots in India's Odisha state a decade ago address a gathering of victims and Christians in Bengaluru city on Feb. 22. (Photo by Cynthia Stephen)

As Kanakarekha Nayak narrated how her husband was dismembered limb by limb in front of her and their two daughters because of his Christian faith, she paused as if seeing that dreadful scene again.

Wiping away tears as she spoke in a choked but calm voice, she said: “We prayed for their forgiveness and hid in the forest.”

Nayak was speaking to a gathering of some 1,000 Christians gathered in an auditorium to hear her and others like her who underwent the trauma of 2008 anti-Christian violence in India’s eastern state of Odisha, then known as Orissa.

More than a decade after the worst anti-Christian persecution in the history of India, victims and their families are turning out to be biggest witnesses and inspiration of the Christian faith in the country, church leaders told the Feb. 22 gathering in Bengaluru (formerly Bangalore) city.

“When Christians die for their faith, it is a time for the Church to remember that martyrdom is like a seed,” said Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore. Martyrdom helps faith grow more quickly than can be achieved by theology or the Bible, he said.

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The life and death of Nayak’s husband Parikkhit Nayak should have been an inspiring one.

The family were at home on Aug. 26 when the riots began but when a mob arrived, they ran to a forest.

“My husband was caught but being a strong person he was able to escape. We came out of the forest the next day and started walking to the nearby town. On the way, some men stopped us,” Nayak recounted.

“They asked if we were Christians. They caught my husband, tied his hands and began beating him, dragging him over a kilometer.”

She and the two girls pleaded with the attackers to stop. “But they cut his limbs one by one when he was alive. Then they poured kerosene on him and burned his body on the spot.”

Nayan and her daughters spent the night in the forest and reached a relief camp later.

Honor the faith

The gathering organized by Karnataka Region Catholic Bishops’ Council was the first such large public program about the riots organized outside Odisha,.

Archbishop Machado said the meeting aimed to honor the faith and sacrifice of Christians in Kandhamal.

It also aimed to raise awareness about seven Christians who organizers said were wrongly sentenced for the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, which triggered the riots.

Anto Akkara, a journalist-turned-activist, told the gathering that the Christians were jailed in 2013 after being convicted of Saraswati’s murder on Aug. 23, 2008.

A documentary he produced claims Hindu masses, most of them illiterate, had been incited to take revenge on the Christians after the slain Swami's body was paraded across Kandhamal district for two days along zigzag routes.

The riots that began three days after the murder killed nearly 100 Christians and torched some 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses.

Akkara’s documentary (available in the public domain) claimed the riots were a planned pogrom by Hindu groups. Touting Saraswati's murder as a Christian-led attack on Hinduism, they attacked Christians.

Even the justice system had been twisted to jail innocent people, he said. After two judges were transferred, a third judge sentenced the Christians to life imprisonment on the basis of a fabricated conspiracy theory.

The seven were the “second batch of killers” arrested by police after the “first batch of killers” were released after 40 days of detention and the “news of a Christian conspiracy” was publicised across the nation, Akkara, who addressed the gathering told ucanews.com.

In mid-2015, two top police officials, who had relied on the same conspiracy theory to ensure the conviction of the accused, testified before a Kandhamal judicial Inquiry that the allegations were false.

Akkara told the gathering that it was “a shame for Indian democracy and its judicial system that the seven innocents — six of them illiterates — are in jail to perpetuate a political fraud.”

“The sufferings of the jailed Christians, and those of the families of the riot victims, remind us of the early Christians. These are valiant stories to inspire the Church in India,” he told ucanews.com.

Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, whose archdiocese covers the riot-hit areas, told the gathering that “experience of persecution was hard and painful, but the love and support we have received after it occurred is a hundred times greater.”

"The attackers had done their worst to harm our people, but their violence did not succeed in removing Jesus from our lives,” said the prelate.

“Some of them asked me: ‘Why did this happen to us, the least, the last, the lost, tucked away in a corner of the country?’ I replied: ‘It is because He has chosen us.’”

Denounce Christianity or die

Runima Digal explained how her husband Easwar Digal, who was Hindu before their marriage, was killed by fanatics for his newly gained faith.

In the third week of the riots, the couple with their four children felt safe in a relief camp. But they received a message from their village to return as things had become peaceful.

Once they arrived at the village, a group of men surrounded Eashwar and accused him of killing Saraswati. The attackers left that day with a warning that he must denounce the Christian faith or face death. The next day, the family decided to escape to the forest but on the the way they were stopped by men armed with axes and swords, she said.

One of them swung an ax at Easwar’s neck, wounding him grievously. They then asked him to deny Christ but he refused. They tied him, beat him and dragged him for some distance. Finally, they beheaded him and threw his body into a stream.

She and Nayak are among 18 riot widows who gather every month for prayer and fasting.

Father Dibakar Parichha, a lawyer priest who has helped victims, told the gathering that in cases such as Digal’s investigators could not find a body.

Therefore, the perpetrators were convicted of culpable homicide and not of murder, and sentenced to seven years in jail. However, there is an appeal pending and it is possible that their sentences may be increased to life terms, he said.

However, in hundreds of riot cases, criminals were acquitted because of sloppy police investigation and a lack of evidence and witnesses, Father Parichha said.

In several instances, police were present when attacks were happening but were under instructions not to act. Federal paramilitary forces arrived in the area only after 41 days of unabated riots despite several appeals from church officials, he said.

In court cases, senior government pleaders who were supposed to speak for the victims failed to turn up and judges were frequently transferred. Witnesses were intimidated by the accused and their supporters, making them disappear or turning them hostile during trials, the priest said.

The riots were “indeed painful for those who suffered a decade ago. They continue to suffer the impacts in various ways. But their example and experience will strengthen the entire Church in India,” Akkara said.

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