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‘There Will Be More Martyrs’

Christians endure widespread violence in India

On 27 August 2008, Kanaka Rekha Nayak fled home with her family, driven out by a violent mob. While she and her two young children managed to hide, the horde caught her husband, Parikhit, and demanded he renounce his Christian faith and become a Hindu. He refused.

From their hiding place, Mrs. Nayak and her two young children could only watch as the rioters stabbed him to death, hacked at his limbs and finally burned his remains.

Seven years later, Mrs. Nayak, now in her 30’s, still trembles recalling the scene.

Her husband was among more than 90 people killed in Odisha’s Kandhamal district, in what is considered to be the worst episode of anti-Christian violence India has ever witnessed.

The attacks rattled Kandhamal for four months, triggered by the 24 August 2008 assassination of Lakshmanananda Saraswati, a nonagenarian Hindu religious leader, and his four associates in another part of Kandhamal. Mr. Saraswati, a member of the World Hindu Council, had denounced the work of Christians among tribal and Dalit (members of the “untouchable” caste) villagers in Kandhamal.

Although Maoist guerillas opposed to the government of India had claimed responsibility for the murder, Hindu radical groups nevertheless scapegoated Christians and embarked on a campaign of terror against the minority community.

Frenzied mobs looted and burned more than 6,500 Christian houses — leaving 56,000 homeless — torched 395 churches and shrines, and destroyed 35 schools and social service institutions. The violence disrupted studies of some 10,000 students. Attackers sexually assaulted women, including a Catholic nun who was raped by a gang of men while nearby police did nothing to intervene.

With that violence — and with the horror of her husband’s killing still haunting her — Kanaka Rekha Nayak traveled to New Delhi in early September, seeking justice from the central government after having little success in her native state of Odisha.

When she arrived in the Indian capital, she did not come alone, but as part of a delegation seeking to draw the nation’s attention to the plight of Kandhamal survivors. Members shared their pain with President Pranab Mukherjee and journalists from national and international media, discussing both the events of 2008 and their legacy today.

Some 10,000 people, including Mrs. Nayak, remain afraid to return to their villages — their attackers remain at large and still pose a threat.

The Indian capital also recently hosted thousands of Christians from various northern Indian states, who held a demonstration on an artery road leading to India’s Parliament House. “The protest rally,” wrote a group of Christian community leaders, including the Roman Catholic archbishop of Delhi, Anil Couto, in a statement to the Indian government, “[expresses] our collective frustration, deep sorrow and mounting anguish at the government’s cynicism and apathy to stop the targeted violence against us.&dquo;

Among those who addressed the demonstrators was a Protestant pastor who had been beaten by Hindu radicals a few days earlier for praying inside his house with some members of his congregation. When he went to the local police station to complain, law enforcers thrashed him for praying in his house without a license. A.C. Michael, a Catholic lay leader at the demonstration, says Delhi’s lieutenant governor had told a Christian delegation that no one requires a license to pray inside one’s house.

Events such as these, the demonstrators cite, prompted them to petition the prime minister, noting that Christians, who make up only 2.3 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people, face a systematic targeting by Hindu radical groups.

As general secretary of the All India Christian Council, John Dayal keeps a record of attacks on religious minority groups in India. He says the country witnessed at least 43 deaths in more than 600 cases of violence against Christians and Muslims in the first year under the new government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr. Modi belongs to the B.J.P., or Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People’s Party”), which espouses Hindutva — the ideology of Hindu nationalism — and is considered the political arm of groups trying to change India into a Hindu theocratic state.

Mr. Dayal says the number of such attacks may actually be higher, since the police do not record many crimes. Moreover, he adds, victims are often coerced into silence.

Msgr. John Kochuthundil, who coordinates a core team that advises the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India (C.B.C.I.) on national issues, says the attacks against Christians and other religious minority groups are determined, planned and systematic. Besides the attacks on churches, schools, sisters and pastors, he says, Hindutva leaders indulge in hate speech against Christians.

“They have slandered even Blessed Mother Teresa, an international icon of Christian charity, saying she was interested only in converting Hindus,” says Msgr. Kochuthundil, who is also the vicar general of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Eparchy of Gurgaon.

Mr. Dayal says Hindutva mouthpieces such as Organiser, a weekly periodical, often carry pictures of the famed Missionaries of Charity founder while criticizing Christian humanitarian works as a façade for converting poor or gullible Hindus.

Msgr. Joseph Chinnayyan, deputy secretary general of the C.B.C.I., says Christians in India had experienced sporadic violence even before Mr. Modi came to power. However, there has since been “an unexpected increase” in attacks since the formation of the Modi government.

Msgr. Chinnayyan says Catholic sisters have faced violence — including sexual assault and murder — across the nation. In the past three decades, attacks have been reported in regions such as Gajraula, some 75 miles northeast of New Delhi; in Mumbai, in western India; in Kariyal and Almoh, cities in the northern Indian state of Punjab; in Indore, in the central state of Madhya Pradesh; and in Jharkhand, eastern India.

Some attacks have been rooted in class or caste conflicts, according to some observers, rather than for differences of religious identity. In 1995, landlords hired a man to kill Franciscan Clarist Sister Rani Maria Vattalil in response to her work to empower the poor through rights education and community organization. In late 2011, a group of assailants murdered Sister Valsa John of the Sisters of Charity of Jesus and Mary, who had been helping the populations of more than 30 tribal villages to fight against displacement, exploitation and pollution by a coal-mining enterprise.

Places of worship are also targeted. In particular, the Indian capital has recently witnessed unprecedented attacks on Catholic churches, starting with a mysterious fire that gutted St. Sebastian’s Church in Dilshad Garden, an eastern suburb, on 1 December 2014. Within the next three months, five more churches and a Catholic school in New Delhi were vandalized.

The Rev. Savarimuthu Sankar, public relations officer of the Catholic Archdiocese of Delhi, says authorities often dismiss attacks as stray incidents or the work of disturbed individuals, ignoring their systemic character.

The manifestations of anti-Christian violence are the bodies of battered and slain Christians, destroyed churches and chapels, and the fear felt by those in some central Indian villages who cannot invite priests to conduct prayers, says Mr. Dayal.

The 65-year-old lay leader has himself received hate mail, including threats to his wife, daughter and son should he continue to protest anti-Christian violence on television and other media.

The shriek of a car alarm woke the Rev. Eugene Moon Lazarus, parish priest of St. Mary’s Church in Agra — the city famous for the Taj Mahal — on the night of 16 April. With two other priests, he checked the grounds and found several statues broken. A large Marian statue inside the front garden had been knocked down with a dog chain. They also found marks on the church’s main door indicating attempts to break it open.

After two days, the police produced as the culprit a Muslim youth, believed to be the jilted lover of a Catholic girl, lashing out for having been spurned.

“We knew it was a cooked-up story, but could do nothing. There was no girl with that name in our parish,” says Father Lazarus. “When we expressed our doubts, the police said in that case we should know the culprits, and demanded that we reveal their identities.”

The youth was released after a month, when no evidence surfaced against him. “That was the end of the case,” Father Lazarus says, adding that the parish repaired the damages and carried on.

Renovation efforts are also in full swing at St. Sebastian’s in Dilshad Garden. Sitting between a Hindu temple and an Orthodox church, the Catholic sanctuary was used by both Latin and Syro-Malabar Catholics since it was erected in 2001.

Christians and others had suspected foul play in the fire but the municipal administration dismissed it as the result of short circuit.

K. A. Thomas, a parish trustee, says he never imagined this for their church.

“It was shocking and sad to look at the charred crucifix at the altar.”

The retired federal employee says they had waited eight months for the government to fulfill its promise to restore the church. Repairs finally began in July, although the works were sponsored by the archdiocese.

Abraham Mathew, a parishioner and director of the company conducting the repairs, says the work will take at least one year and will cost be around $150,000. He says he was involved when the church was built and it was difficult for him to accept, after it had been torched.

“Each time I see the church I feel a deep loss,” he says, adding that the incident has been hard on the entire community.

Six days after the Dilshad Garden fire, unidentified vandals threw stones at Our Lady of Fatima Church in Jasola, a south Delhi suburb, a parish of the Syro-Malabar Eparchy of Faridabad. Some 200 Catholics were attending the Divine Liturgy in the year-old church when the stones crashed through the window, landing near the altar.

The vicar general, the Rev. Sebastian Vadakkumpadan, says the church decided to ignore the incident, as the administration provided police security to all churches in the national capital.

He adds that the prime minister himself sought to reassure the community by promising, at an eparchial celebration, to uphold India’s secular status and deal firmly with those spreading sectarian violence in the country.

Msgr. Chinnayyan says he has seen a decline in the attacks in the past few months, perhaps due to international pressure on the government.

Mr. Michael, a former member of the Delhi state government’s Minority Commission, argues otherwise. The violence, he says, has only shifted from mainstream churches in cities to rural areas. There, he says, attacks on Christians “are increasing day by day.”

When the B.J.P. came to power, the main force behind the party, the radical R.S.S., or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (“National Volunteers’ Corps”), seized the occasion to push its main agenda of “saffronization” — turning India into a Hindu country.

Christians represent an obstacle to their plan, Msgr. Chinnayyan says, and thus attackers aim to instill fear. “We are not frightened; every day we remember a martyr or saint who stood for faith,&dquo; he says.

“The church began in suffering and we are told there will be persecution until the end of time.”

Msgr. Kochuthundil says the right-wing ideologues resent Christians for helping poor tribal and Dalit groups to advance in life.

Christians teach that all people are children of God and therefore equal in the eyes of the Creator. The Indian constitution also regards every citizen as equal. However, this goes against India’s ancient caste system, which determines a person’s status at birth — a system Hindu radicals wish to return to prominence.

“Our attackers hate us because we propagate moral values, uphold human rights and promote secular India. We teach the poor to demand their just wages and right to a dignified life,” Msgr. Kochuthundil says.

Christians in India, he says, cherish the secularism enshrined in the country’s constitution. “After the Bible, we consider the constitution the most important document.”

Msgr. Chinnayyan says attacks have awoken Christians to the need to be vigilant, and to live Christ’s teachings to the fullest, placing trust in the good will of the Hindu population, most of which is tolerant and similarly in favor of a secular state.

Archbishop Anil Couto believes Christians should build a fraternal and peaceful community and turn their works in health, education and social fields into expressions of God’s love.

“This is what God expects of us by being salt and light in the world,” he told the sit-in demonstration at Parliament Street.

Meanwhile, Kanaka Rekha Nayak now lives in a hut in a slum some 150 miles east of her home in Kandhamal, where she gets by as a housekeeper. She waits for the day the country’s highest authorities will take decisive action, and make it safe for her to return to her village and resume life on her farm.

Until then, says Msgr. Chinnayyan, “there will be more martyrs.”

Jose Kavi writes about social and religious issues in India from New Delhi.

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