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Odisha Catholics observe first-ever martyrs day

Over 100 Christians were killed by Hindu hardliners over a seven-week period in 2008 in the Indian state
Odisha Catholics observe first-ever martyrs day

Catholic bishops pay tribute at the first "Martyrs Day" to remember those killed in anti-Christian violence eight years ago in the Indian state of Odisha. (Photo by Santosh Digal)

Published: September 02, 2016 11:03 AM GMT
Updated: September 02, 2016 11:12 AM GMT

Eight years after Hindu hardliners killed more than a hundred Christians in Odisha, dioceses in this east Indian state held their first ever "martyrs' day" to commemorate those who died for their faith.

About 600 family members of those killed were invited and joined seven bishops and hundreds of nuns and priests for a Mass in Kandhamal, the center of the outbreak.

Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who started the commemoration, did not want to make it massive program. But wanted it to slowly be taken up by the parishes of all the six dioceses in the state and later across the nation, said Father Santosh Digal, spokesperson for the Odisha Catholic Bishops' Council (OCBC).

The OCBC earlier this year resolved to hold the memorial program for all the 101 Christians killed — not just Catholics — every Aug. 30.

"We did not want to make any distinction of denomination at this point," said Father Digal. "At a later point, when the process of canonization is initiated, we will consider only the 22 Catholics killed because they refused to abandon their faith."

Archbishop Barwa, chairman of the regional council, officiated along with seven bishops. He joined all attendees to view an exhibition of photos, paintings, film documentaries and literature that captured the violence and its aftermath.

"The Kandhamal martyrs are our history," said Bishop Sarat Chandra Nayak of Berhampur. "We have to keep this experience alive. Our stories are not stories of suffering and sacrifice but of courage and conviction."

Bishop Nayak recalled the leadership of late Archbishop Raphael Cheenath during the 2008 violence. The bishop wanted people to follow the example of Archbishop Cheenath who advocated dialogue and networking with national and international communities to secure justice, peace and faith.

The tribal dominated Kandhamal area, where Spanish Vincentian missioners began evangelizing about 90 years ago, saw a rise in hardline Hindu activities as the number of Christians began to grow over the last five decades.

Trouble started back in 1970 when Hindu leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati began speaking openly against Christians and missionary activities. On Aug. 23, 2008 gunmen shot and killed Saraswati and four others in his home in Kandamal. Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder but hardline Hindus blamed Christians and began attacking them.

Over 100 Christians were killed in the violence that continued for seven weeks. Hardline Hindus targeted Christian homes and raped several women including a Catholic nun. They also hacked men to death burned down homes, churches and orphanages in the first such organized violence against Christians in recent Indian history.

Several Christians could have escaped death if they had abandoned their faith and chanted slogans and prayers hailing Hindu gods and goddesses, according to testimonies by family members and pastors. Now they are martyrs.

"Kandhamal is a holy land because of the blood of Christians," said Bishop Kishor Kumar Kujur of Rourkela, adding that it was "place of pilgrimage" for him. "The spirit of faith and belief pervades here."

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