Mumbai (AsiaNews) - Fr Edward Sequeira, one of the victims of the violence committed by Hindu radicals in Orissa, does not hesitate to call them "terrorists". Groups connected to Sangh Parivar seized him, beat him for more than an hour, and then shut him inside a room that they set on fire. Fr Edward was able to save himself by taking shelter in the bathroom. Before he passed out, he heard the screams of Rajni Majh, who was tied up and thrown into the flames, where she was burned to death.
Initial reports said that she was a sister, then a lay missionary. Fr Edward explains that the girl was one of the many orphans he had rescued, and that she lived and worked in the orphanage he had founded.
Fr Edward is unable to hold back the tears, and begins sobbing when he talks about her. The crowd of fanatics may have thought that Rajni was one of the many people they believe have been forced to convert through "Christian proselytism". "'She was only a simple Hindu girl", the priest says, "studying in the plus 3 class. I can still hear her voice, 'Father they are going to burn me', these were her last words to me, after this I lost consciousness". Her death "is a deep wound in my heart".
Hindu fundamentalists have long been conducting a campaign against conversions to Christianity, and against evangelization. For Fr Edward, 58, missionary activity is something that upholds the dignity of the person
“I have been working among lepers in Padampur in Bargarh district for the past ten years. I realized that, given the preference for a male child in rural Indian communities, parents many times have more than 4-5 daughters before a son is born - and unfortunately, these girls are rarely sent to school, they are made to graze cattle or even sent at early age as domestic workers or to the landlords, and many girls suffer from malnutrition.
"So I started a very small hostel-orphanage for girls, to give them opportunity and dignity through education and vocational training.
"One such girl in my orphanage was Rajni Majhi, who was born to Hindu parents who already had 5 or 6 daughters, and they gave her up for adoption to a Hindu tribal childless couple. Sadly, when the adopted parents after a few years conceived biological children, they began ill-treating and discriminating against Rajni, and in this reality she came to my orphanage four years ago. Within a few months, she was bubbling with life, the younger girls called her “Nanni’ (big sister), and besides studying in college in her 13th year, Rajni would be like a governess to the children.
"All the development programmes for these leprosy patients and the other dalits have all been for Hindus. More than 25 years I have worked in Orissa, and not a single person have I converted to Christianity".
Hatred of Christianity and personal development is what drives radical Hindu groups to try to wipe out the presence of Christians and their institutions. "Who says that terrorists are only those who plant bombs and carry guns? This was a terrorist attack on Orissa. What about these Sangh Parivar members, who have been given the license to kill, destroy and plunder their fellow citizens? This was sheer terrorism unleashed on the Christians in Kandhmal district".
Fr Edward explains what happened to him: "On Monday August 25th, around 1.30 pm, as I was having lunch, there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, a huge crowd of more than 500 people were outside and asked 'Who is the priest?'. This is nothing strange, as often people come requesting my help, for my vehicle to drive them to a hospital or other such emergencies. As soon as I identified myself, they raised their arms holding all the weapons - axes, shovels, spades and iron rods.They took me outside in the courtyard and began hitting me, screaming abuses at Christianity and shouting 'Bajrang Bali Ki Jai; Yesu Christi Murdabada; Hail Lord Hanuman (editor's note: a Hindu god with the face of a monkey), destroy, eliminate Jesus Christ', beating me on my head, back, all over my body.
"The extremists thrashed me for nearly an hour (editor's note: Fr Edward still has bruises all over his body, and five wounds on his back).
"Then they entered my room, collected all the clothes and books and whatever they laid their hands on and piled it in the centre of the room, threw some kerosene on the pile, and some crude oil, and threw some gelatine sticks which they had brought with them and lit the fire and threw me into the flames and locked the door from the outside.
"Somehow, I was not frightened, there was definitely the divine presence in the burning room, and I went into the bathroom and locked myself in and shut all the windows. The whole room was engulfed in thick smoke and flames.
"The attackers were shouting Bajrang Bali Ki Jai; Yesu Christi Murdabada, and hurling abuses. They went to the garage and burned the vehicle, I could hear some of them on the roof setting fire from the top. Thick smoke was in the bathroom, where I was hiding, it was dark and full of thick smoke, and as I inhaled the smoke my only concern was for the children.
"In the meanwhile, the children and Rajni, who witnessed the mob assaulting me, took the children inside their own orphanage room which is next to mine and bolted the door from the inside. The men who had climbed onto the roof entered the room and dragged Rajni outside with the children - some of the children escaped. They brought her outside my bathroom window. I could hear the cries of Rajni, and the mob was cheering and shouting through the window. These criminals tied her hands together - they made a huge bonfire in the orphanage room and threw her onto the fire. They used sickles, shovels and other weapons to prevent her from running away, these extremists did not allow her to even move from the burning flames".
Here Fr Edward burst into tears. When he resumed speaking, he simply said, "Rajni was a simple adopted Hindu girl, looking forward to a future". "Now my concern is for helping the orphans. These children saw the fire. I can't even imagine their trauma; they will be afraid for their whole lives".
It was only the arrival of firefighters that put an end to the tragedy. But the problems remain: "In rural India", the priest continues, "human rights and religious freedom are non-existent. India has a dual identity, one of emerging economic power - an industrial India - and a parrellel India, the rural poor, the exploited and dispossessed, poverty-stricken Indians without rights, without religious freedom, who are not even considered by the political powers except as an election vote bank.
"When the Church makes the people aware of their dignity and gives them self-reliance, we are attacked. We are improving the economic status of the poor and marginalised. The dalits and tribals are becoming self-reliant through our education, with some power of decision-making. This is strongly resented and opposed by the local landlords, who are unable to exploit them as cheap farm labour, bonded labour and other forms of oppression.
"Today, religion is completely politicized, and the rural impoverished in India are pawns in the hands of powerful politicians who whip us into religious frenzy for political gain. They are vandals, criminals".
Fr Edward concludes with an appeal to the international community: "World leaders should condemn this attack on the Christians in Orissa. It is not sufficient that after five days, the prime minister should say this is a 'national shame'. The international community must unequivocally condemn this terrorist attack, and also impose sanctions. The international community should question India's abuse and lack of human rights and religious freedom”.