After severing its colonial ties with Great Britain in 1947, India, a nation of 1.2 billion people, organized a secular Democratic Republic that guarantees freedom to practice and propagate one’s faith.
Christianity in India dates back to the Acts of the Apostles, but is the faith of only 2.5 percent of the population today. The total number of Catholics is 19.5 million.
Sadly, in the twenty-first century, the religious liberty clause in the Indian constitution has been ignored by Hindu fundamentalists who have planned, coordinated, and executed anti-Christian pogroms. On Christmas Day 2008, for example, over 100 Churches and Christian facilities were looted, damaged, or destroyed, and more than 400 Christian houses were gutted.
Since 2008, the focus of Hindu terrorists has been in the jungle village of Kandhamal located in the state of Odisha (formerly Orissa). Over 56,000 of the 117,000 Christians living there have been driven from their homes, with 6,000 of their houses burnt to the ground. Three hundred Churches and holy places have been desecrated or destroyed.
The Christians are being persecuted not only because of their faith, as they are in Egypt and Syria, but because they refuse to renounce it and embrace Hinduism. As a result, thousands of Indians, including priests, nuns, and ministers, have been sadistically tortured. Many have lost limbs; others have been burnt alive. Over 100 have been martyred for the faith.
Reacting to these hideous crimes, the Archbishop of Bombay, Cardinal Oswald Gracias said: “The blood of the martyrs has always been the seed of Christianity. That is the mystery of the Cross! I have no doubt that much blessing from God will be showered upon the people of Odisha and India as a result of the suffering of the Kandhamal Christians.”
But it will come at a heavy price. In his work, Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century, award-winning Indian journalist Anto Akkara, who visited Kandhamal sixteen times, recounts how the anti-Christian violence was orchestrated, and records the testimonies of victims and their families. The volume contains “a collection of over one hundred true witnesses to Christ-testimonies soaked in blood, tested and purified by untold suffering.”
Akkara describes how police looked away as churches were being destroyed and further how, in many cases, they refused to report the cause of deaths as murders. To avoid prosecution, Hindu terrorists hid the evidence. The bodies of martyrs were cremated or dumped into bogs or rivulets in the jungle. As for the few cases that went to trial, kangaroo “fast track” courts dismissed or acquitted Hindu bigots, citing lack of evidence.
After a dozen Christian leaders led by Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar confronted Indian Prime Minster Manmohan Singh about the orchestrated violence. Singh publicly acknowledged that it was a “national shame,” but took few measures “to restore the confidence of the Christian community.”
For the faithful, India’s constitutional guaranteed freedom of religion and equality before the law remains meaningless slogan.
There are many heart-wrenching stories in Akkara’s book, but one that particularly struck me involved a 56-year old priest and a 28-year old nun.
The next day they were captured and just before Chellan’s kerosene-soaked head was torched, there was a last second decision to hold off. Instead, a gang of fifty Hindus beat the priest and nun. “It was like a crucifixion parade,” Father Chellan later recalled.
Their tormentors stripped them of their clothing and began raping Sister Meena. Later they paraded their half-naked prisoners through the streets and Chellan was ordered to rape the nun: “When I refused, they kept beating me and dragged us to the nearby government office. Sadly, a dozen policemen were watching all this quietly.”
Finally, a senior policeman took them to a police station 12 km away and their ordeal ended. The next day they were released and flown to Mumbai for treatment.
Sister Meena, who recovered from her traumatic ordeal, refused to be silent. She went public, held a press conference in front of 200 television cameras in New Delhi and demanded an investigation into her rape. Sister described everything in gruesome details and how the police tried to dissuade her from lodging a criminal complaint after the mandatory medical test confirmed the rape.
“Maybe God wanted me to suffer with our people and become an instrument to speak up for the voiceless people of Kandhamal,” she told the media. Sister Meena concluded by publicly thanking God “for choosing me to face this humiliation and giving me the opportunity to suffer for the people of Kandhamal. I got a chance to undergo the experience of being crucified.”
The rock-like faith of Sister Meena and thousands of others inspired Anto Akkara to write his book. He believes they deserve the title “Early Christians of the Twenty-first Century” because they held on to their faith “amid diabolic cruelty, rampant impunity, and state apathy.”