Catholics in India's Orissa state recall Christmas nightmare
by Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service
POBINGIA, India (CNS) -- As the vicar of St. Peter's Church in Pobingia was supervising his parishioners making decorations Christmas Eve, he got an urgent call from the parish priest less than 15 miles away in Phulbani, warning him that Hindu mobs were attacking churches.
Father Prasanna Singh, the vicar, contemplated what to do next. Police, ordered by the government to guard the church, fled when they heard 600 Hindus approaching and shouting anti-Christian slogans. Other police officers stood by and watched.
As the priest fled through the backyard, the mob -- armed with swords, axes, crowbars and spears -- broke the gates and destroyed the church.
"See, this is not the result of an earthquake," Father Singh told Catholic News Service Jan. 5, pointing to the destruction around the church. The tall trees in front of the church were cut down, a 20-foot concrete cross on top of the church was torn down, and everything inside the church, rectory and student hostel was reduced to ashes.
The days of violence in India's Orissa state began with Hindus destroying Christmas decorations at the local market. In retaliation, Christians burned Hindu shops and houses, followed by widespread violence over 600 square miles and four days.
Five Catholic churches, 48 village chapels, two seminaries, half a dozen hostels and four convents were destroyed. Dozens of Hindu homes and hundreds of Christian homes were burned and looted in the Kandhamal district.
Several Catholics have gone into hiding to evade arrest after 90 Christians were charged with setting fire to Hindu houses. Government officials have refused to distribute relief to Christians whose houses were burned down by Hindus and have urged Christians to give up the hiding men.
Many Christian families also fled deep into the jungle for safety.
"All of us are still scared," said Sadananda Digal, a Catholic layman. Many of the 130 Catholic families of Pobingia, Digal said, were "still sleeping in the jungles in the night."
Father Laxmikant Pradhan, parish vicar of St. Paul's Church in Phulbani, explained that a dozen Hindu youths barged into the church and destroyed their Christmas decorations. Then a mob of 400 people broke in and burned everything inside the church and his residence.
"All this happened with the police watching from outside," Father Pradhan said angrily.
The mob headed to the adjacent St. Paul's minor seminary, where almost all rooms were reduced to black chimneys. Some members of the mob left riding the seminarians' bicycles while other bikes were dumped in a well.
Meanwhile, in Balliguda's Carmelite convent, a statue of Mary, now headless and burned, scares those entering its destroyed premise.
"We do not have even a glass here to drink water," said Sister Sujata, superior of the order.
When the heavily armed mobs broke in, the nuns hid under the staircase.
"When they spotted us, they wanted to drag the younger ones into the room and molest them," said Sister Sujata. In addition to the four nuns, four young women -- including two novices -- were in the convent, which has a hostel for 120 poor girls.
"We prayed and held our hands together and resisted," Sister Sujata recalled. Fortunately, the assailants let them go, and the nuns jumped over the back walls and fled into the pitch-black darkness of the jungle. After a week, the nuns returned once federal security forces were deployed there.
At the Capuchin seminary in Barakhama, less than 10 miles from Balliguda, Father Chinnappa Payarda and 32 seminarians kept vigil in the bitter cold. They thought the danger was over, but a Hindu helper came running around noon on Christmas, shouting, "They are coming."
"We fled for our lives and could not take out any important document," said the rector, who is worried about losing all the documents, including the original school certificates of a new batch of seminarians.
As they fled in different directions, two seminarians were caught by the Hindu mob that spared them for being "too young."
"We want to kill the priests only," one of the mob leaders told the others, ordering them "not to harm" the teenage seminarians.
Father Robi Subhashsunder, parish priest of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish about 75 miles from Barakhama, said that while he was on the phone briefing Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar about the trouble, the priest saw mobs breaking down his locked gates. He escaped safely.
Over the next few days, he stayed in the jungle with the other Catholic families, surviving on stream water and wild fruit. He recalled seeing a 3-year-old Catholic child dying during the jungle sojourn.
"I do not know what to do now," Father Subhashsunder told CNS Jan. 6 after returning to his parish.
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