Little has been reported about ongoing violence in Orissa, India, the country’s 9th largest state in India with a population of 36.7 million, of which one percent are Catholic.
Throughout the state, a significant anti-Catholic bias reigns. Converts tend to come from the lower castes of Indian society. They are despised as “inferiors.” Something embraced by the despisable must also be despised.
Anti-religious violence in Orissa first appeared in the public eye in 1997 with the murder of Evangelical missionary Graham Staines and his two sons. A mob of frenzied Hindus led by members of the radical Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) burned them in their car when they were taking a rest.
The VHP is an organization that strives to unite Hindus worldwide to overcome the “evil influences” of Christianity. Swami Chinmayananda, a radical Hindu who taught and established schools of Hindu thought around the world, founded it in 1964. Many of the recent attacks against Catholics were instigated by members of this group.
The group led another series of attacks during the Christmas Season of 2007 in the Kandhal district of Orissa. More than sixty churches, schools, convents and shelters were destroyed. More than one thousand Christians fled to refugee camps.
Then, on August 23, 2008 Maoist rebels assassinated the radical VHP leader Swami Lakshmanananda. Local members of the group accused Catholics for his death and set off new waves of violence, with killings, torture and the destruction of private property.
To date, at least fifty people have been killed, and some 50,000 others have fled into hiding.1 Many churches have been burned and other institutions attacked by fire and looters.2 Father Bernard Digal, treasurer of the Cuttack-Bhubanhwar Archdiocese, was beaten and left in the bush where he was later found by his driver. He explained the situation of Catholics in the area: “in Kandhmal we were treated worse than animals. Every possible indignity, obscenity and torture was meted out against helpless Christians. Men, women, children; everyone was targets of brutal atrocities.”3
Catholics have reacted. On August 29th, 25,000 Catholic schools shut down in protest against the violence. The Holy See decried the violence as “actions which harm the dignity and the freedom of people and compromise peaceful civilian coexistence.”4
Violence escalated when angry mobs began attacking police stations killing one officer and destroying several stations. Anarchy is reigning there, and the worst part is there is no foreseeable end.
The violence has incentivated many Catholics to become stronger in their Faith. Adikant Singh of Bhubaneswar, the capital of Orissa, used to fear admitting that he is a Catholic to others. Now he says he is ready to die for his Faith and finds consolation in going to Mass. “One day we will die in any case, so let us die as good Catholics,” he said.5
This persecution of Catholics in India is reminiscent of the martyrs of old. They too were forced from their homes and brutally slaughtered for upholding their faith. Catholic Indians should strive to follow their example and keep in mind what Our Lord said: “And fear ye not them that kill the body, and are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him that can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt. 10:28)
- “India: 53 arrested for attacks on Karnataka churches; Orissa Church life paralyzed,” Catholic World News, Sept. 17, 2008. http://www.catholicculture.org/news/headlines/index.cfm?storyid=426.
- “Fresh violence in Orissa as mob kills cop,” Sify News, http://sify.com/news/fullstory.php?id=14758919
- “In Orissa Christians treated worse than animals, says Father Bernard,” Asianews.it, Sept. 10, 2008. http://www.asianews.it/index.php?l=en&art=13186&size=A.
- “Vatican condemns India attack,” International Herald Tribune, Aug. 26, 2008. http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2008/08/26/europe/EU-Vatican-India-Orphanage-Fire.php.
- “INDIA: Catholics In Orissa Draw Strength From Eucharist To Cope With Fear Of Violence,” Ucanews.com, Sept. 16, 2008. http://www.ucanews.com/2008/09/16/catholics-in-orissa-draw-strength-from-eucharist-to-cope-with-fear-of-violence/.