Updated: August 14, 2021 08:46 AM GMT
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath (center) participating in a 2010 protest at New Delhi's Jantar Mantar marking the second anniversary of the Kandhamal riots that killed some 100 Christians. (Photo: Anto Akkara)
August 14 marks the fifth death anniversary of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who suffered the pangs of Kandhamal violence, one of the worst incidents of Christian persecution in Indian history.
Archbishop Cheenath fostered for over a quarter-century the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese that has most of its faithful living in the remote, tribal-dominated Kandhamal district in eastern India’s Odisha state.
He had to undergo the agony of seeing his folks being slaughtered and scattered, their houses and possessions plundered, and churches reduced to ashes in the conflagration triggered by the murder of 81-year-old Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on Aug. 23, 2008.
The unabated violence that followed for weeks killed nearly 100 Christians and destroyed 300 churches and 6,000 Christian houses, rendering 56,000 homeless.
Archbishop Cheenath was branded the villain behind the shocking murder of the Hindu monk in concerted propaganda by Hindu nationalist organizations. I have proved it as false with telling evidence in my investigative book Who Killed Swami Lakshmanananda? and the documentary Innocents Imprisoned.
During our interactions, Archbishop Cheenath frankly shared with me how he had to face flak from even church circles for stepping out on the streets to support his folks’ quest for justice and reparation for the massive damages they suffered.
The rumor mills have not stopped even after his death. I have been stunned hearing church leaders and others repeating the same allegation against him
The common refrain I came across in several church quarters was that he was a coward who fled Odisha when his flocks were being butchered. I raised this topic with Archbishop Cheenath to know the reality.
Contrary to widespread rumors accusing him of fleeing to Kerala when the violence began, Archbishop Cheenath told me that he was at home in Thrissur for a family function.
After hearing of the Swami’s murder, he rushed to Kochi airport the next morning intending to fly to Bhubaneswar. But on his way to the airport, the vicar general cautioned him not to return there.
In Bhubaneswar, saffron foot soldiers had gathered around the Archbishop’s House at upscale Sathya Nagar in the early morning. A heavy posse of police prevented them from breaking into the house, but its glass panes were shattered by the throwing of stones.
Frustrated, Archbishop Cheenath canceled the trip and returned home, only to fly to New Delhi next morning after consulting Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) officials.
On Aug. 28, he met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and moved the Supreme Court pleading for the army to be deployed in Kandhamal for the protection of Christians.
In the next week, he called on a who’s who of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime — from federal ministers to the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) — pleading with them to help end the violence.
He flew to Mumbai on Sept. 10 to meet three senior priests who were seriously injured and had been rushed there for treatment before finally returning to Bhubaneswar.
Authorities in Kandhamal stopped him for months from visiting his folks languishing in filthy open-air refugee camps.
The rumor mills have not stopped even after his death. I have been stunned hearing church leaders and others repeating the same allegation against him. It proves that even church circles are not immune to the bane of wild rumors.
The valiant pastor had little hesitation in joining his folks at a dharna (sit-in protest) at Jantar Mantar in Delhi on the second anniversary of Kandhamal. He even wore a black band on his forehead, raising eyebrows in church circles.
Two days prior to this, he was seated among the audience at the National People's Tribunal on Kandhamal at the Constitution Club, listening to the testimonies of the victims of the violence.
He told his priests to convert burnt churches into godowns for stocking building materials so that the destroyed houses could be repaired and rebuilt
I remember witnessing an incident at the burnt Pobingia church when a passionate catechist pleaded: “We want our church to be repaired first.”
But Archbishop Cheenath stood firm. “Build the houses first. Churches can be rebuilt later.”
He told his priests to convert burnt churches into godowns for stocking building materials so that the destroyed houses could be repaired and rebuilt for the thousands still languishing in refugee camps and slums.
The prelate often traveled to Delhi to attend the Supreme Court hearings of his special leave petition of 2008. Often, he had to return disappointed as the case dragged on.
The final verdict doubling the token compensation for the victims of Kandhamal came on Aug. 2, 2016 — days before his death.
Archbishop Cheenath breathed his last on the night of Aug. 14, literally fulfilling the words of St. Paul: “I fought well; I completed my race.” (2 Timo 4:7)
Anto Akkara is a journalist and author who has published three books on the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal in Odisha state.The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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