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The words pronounced by John Barwa, Bishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in the Indian state of Orissa, at the plenary session of Indian bishops that runs until 9 March in Bangalore, were decisive. This and the slaying of the Mother Teresa nuns in Yemen, which bishops heard about during their meetings, roused them to action.
The 180 bishops of the world’s largest democracy are united in their wish to proclaim the victims of the anti-Christian massacres in Orissa in 2008 martyrs.
The ordeal which faithful in the district of Kandhamal – a district of the eastern Indian state of Odisha – went through, was a dark moment in India’s history. It was the most severe case of anti-Christian violence ever recorded. The pretext for the violence was the accusation that local Christians were responsible for the killing of a Hindu leader. The news later proved to be false. It started in August 2008 and went on for almost four months, claiming the lives of around a hundred people, while over 56,000 became refugees after being permanently sent away from their villages.
Thousands of militants went on a rampage that razed over 350 churches and Christian places of worship to the ground, destroyed around 6,500 homes, and led to the ransacking of dozens of schools and institutes. More than 40 women, some of them nuns, were raped and there was abuse and humiliation, while many were forced to convert to Hinduism.
This was a case of full-fledged “ethnic cleansing”, carefully planned by Hindu radical groups who staged pogroms purely motivated by religion. This blind violence in odium fidei could earn victims official martyr status.
The bishop of Barwa, confided to Vatican Insider that he was positively impressed by the fact that Indian bishops have shown such a strong interest in the Christians who were persecuted in Orissa,” stating that the assembly could reiterate in writing, in the final declaration issued at the end of the meetings, “its intention to take the necessary steps to proclaim these new Indian martyrs”.
The Church in Orissa has already instituted a special Day named after them, which, it has suggested, should be celebrated on an annual basis. Preparations are also being made to begin the diocesan phase of the canonization process. A group of priests and lay people are busy putting together a detailed list of the victims, with the dates and circumstances of their deaths, gathering all necessary documentation as well as eye witness statements.
“Commemorating that massacre will ensure something like that never happens again. For us it is a way to express our wish for full reconciliation,” said Ajay Kumar Singh, a priest from Kandhamal working in the commission that is gathering testimonies.
Numerous Indian bishops and cardinals have visited the district in question, expressing solidarity with the survivors. Cardinal Oswald Gracias, Archbishop of Bombay and President of the Indian Bishops’ Conference and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, publicly said he was in favour of “opening the cause for the martyrs of Kandhamal”.
Gracias explained that he spoke to the Prefect of the Vatican Congregation for the Causes of Saints and expressed his intention to “speak to Pope Francis in person”. “The Church is sensitive to modern martyrs,” he stated, remarking that “the role of the new testimonies is very important”.
The other Indian cardinal, Baselios Cleemis, wrote a letter to Bishop Barwa stressing the following: “Assure the brothers and sisters who have suffered and continue to suffer in Orissa of the commitment and firm support of the Bishops’ Conference”. His words say a lot about how the martyr’s cause has been welcomed by the subcontinent’s hierarchy.
The official support expressed by the assembly of Indian bishops is a major help to the Catholic Church in Orissa, on many levels. If the entire Catholic Church in India supports it then the martyrdom recognition process will be smoother.
The events in Orissa were the tip of the iceberg in the context of a phenomenon that still causes concern. In 2015 over 200 incidents of violence against Christians were recorded in India. Seven Protestant pastors and one layman were killed, while a total of around 8,000 people, including women and children, were victims of violence. This is according to a report titled “India Christian Persecution”, edited by the Christian Secular Forum (CSF), an organisation that brings together faithful of different denominations.
According to the report, the perpetrators of this violence are extremist groups who promote the Hindutva (“Hinduness”) ideology , which aims to eradicate non Hindus from India. These groups are hostile towards religious minorities and endorse a campaign of hatred and defamation which leads to concrete acts of violence.