Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) - Fr Edward Sequeira was one of the first victims of the pogrom against Christians launched by Hindu extremists last August in the district of Kandhamal (Orissa). The Divine Word priest worked for years at a leper colony, and in an orphanage for abandoned children. It was there that on August 25 the horde of people he calls "terrorists" seized him, beat him unconscious, and tried to burn him alive. He was able to save himself from the fire and suffocating smoke when he regained consciousness and shut himself up in the little bathroom in the room. Before losing consciousness again, he heard the screams of one of his young assistants, Rajni Majhi, who was raped, tied up, and thrown into the flames, where she was burned to death (See: AsiaNews.it Fr Edward, survivor of arson in Orissa: the Hindu radicals are terrorists). In the interview we present here, he recounts his meeting with his assailants, in order to discover the reason for the violence. But above all, he talks about the "humanitarian disaster" in Orissa, where more than 50,000 Christians have been uprooted from their land and are now displaced out of the fear that they are still the target of extremist violence. The priest also denounces the political designs that are being realized precisely through attacks on Christians, who will not be able to vote in the upcoming elections. And he asks the international community to take to heart this situation, in which human dignity has been humiliated, so that globalization may also mean international solidarity.
( Photo: Fr Edward with our correspondent Nirmala Carvalho)
Fr Edward Sequeira, SVD, went back to Orissa on the 11th September 2008, after just 9 days in Holy Spirit Hospital.
He was back in Mumbai for treatment: his shoulder muscle ligament is torn, and his lungs are still weak, the wounds on his head have healed, but he continuous to have headaches. He showed me the scars of his stitches on his back and hands and legs. He offered up to the Lord the painful mystery of his persecution for graces for his attackers.
He moves around incognito, he has grown a beard, and can hardly be recognized, due to concerns over his safety. There are still pressing dangers to his life. He was in hiding for over a month since he returned to Orissa, staying at the Jharsuguda Provincial House in the Sambalpur district of Orissa.
He was very weak and has suffered from malaria and typhoid since his return, and kept moving his residence from one mission station to another in the district because of death threats.
Fr Edward has been offered a mere 20,000 rupees (315 euros) as compensation for the orphanage (the burnt down jeep is not even being considered). He completed the formalities for compensation in November, and yet nothing has been paid.
Fr Edward is saddened by the fact that not a single person from the village testified to the authorities, no one came forward to given witness of either his assault or even about the rape and burning of Rajni.
Rajni Majih's parents were given 200,000 rupees as compensation, which was divided between her adopted and biological parents.
Fr Edward has visited the Padampur orphanage and the village and leper colony five times since his brutal assault –in disguise the entire time. He even visited his attackers in the jail.
The priest shares that this is the third time he has beaten in Orissa -1997, 2004, and 2008. In May of this year, he celebrates the twentieth anniversary of his priestly ordination. "Such immense gifts, I have received, from the good Lord, who has found me worthy to suffer for His name."
"21 people were arrested for the attack on me, the burning of Rajni, and the burning down of the orphanage. Of these, 5 people were from Khuntpalli village, these were people who used to supply milk to the orphanage, some were my construction workers and mostly people whom I have served who were afflicted with leprosy, or others whom I have taken by jeep to hospitals.
"I went to the leper colony and asked them, ‘What grudge did you have against me? What harm had I done to you?' I was told that the attack on my orphanage and my beatings were very meticulously planned, and while some showed remorse, others merely shrugged stating that there were only executors of the plan, but most of those who had beaten me up were hardcore RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) people.
I had to visit these people, I had to know why, these were people whose maggot-infested wounds I had cleaned, who children I cared for, and yet I was brutally beaten and with attempts to burn me alive. These were the same people, who frequented my mission (orphanage) - either for gainful employment or for some personal favours which I gave generously, and yet they had no qualms about mercilessly thrashing me and burning alive Rajni, after they gang raped her.
"I told them I forgave them, that my wounds are graces for them and that my sufferings may be for their repentance for the evil.
"It is rather tragic that most of these villages were mute witnesses to my thrashing and also the burning alive of Rajni, yet not even one has come forward to testify and give witness.
"In November, with official permission I went to the sub-divisional jail, where 5 attackers from my village are being held. When they saw me, they were surprised and shocked. There were some rumours that I had died, no one was sure about my whereabouts.
"I asked them the same question. 'What harm have I done to you, why did you attack me and burn Rajni?' They too had the same reply, that they were not actively involved in any planning, they only carried out orders. Before leaving, I showed them my scars, on my shoulder, head, back, hands, and legs, and told them that I forgive them, and offer these physical wounds for divine graces for them, for their enlightenment and salvation. I told them that I will continue to serve them and I pray every day that God may give them an experience of love and that they may be reconciled to God.
"The 20 orphans are now in government ashrams. The village schools were forced to admit 8 of them, but there is a lot of stigma attached to these children, as their parents were leprosy afflicted and there is a morbid fear of contamination. I have to go and help these children, educate them, and treat them with dignity, I cannot abandon the mission."
Fr Edward is concerned about the Christians in Kandhamal, over their physical and mental situation, their isolation, the emptiness, the desperation. He fears for the future of the young people, who are so impressionable and have been witnesses of horrible violence and enormous injustice.
"The carnage was a personification of evil. The situation is still serious. Kandhamal is cut off and deserted, our 50,000 Christians have been displaced, our people are unable to return to their roots in Kandhamal. In many villages they cannot practice their Christian faith. Christians are not willing to go back because they are afraid they will be attacked, because they have found in these four months that no serious steps have been taken to prevent these attacks, to protect their property and to save their lives. Women have been hacked into pieces when they went to harvest their crops, moreover, the culprits roam freely in the villages. How can our people be assured of safety?
"After returning to Orissa, I went to register my complaint at the police station. The police told me that I am only giving 'narration', and not evidence. Can you imagine what our simple people are told then?
There are a large number of single mothers, so many women have been widowed, so many youths left directionless, these children and youth who have been left fatherless have to be cared for, nurtured and provided. There is serious work to be done for our people in Kandhamal. This is a gross humanitarian disaster.
"India is a spiritual country, home to many different religions, and unfortunately it is a small segment of the population who indoctrinate the poor people into false ideologies of hatred towards Christians. It also saddens me that a large number of the vast Hindu majority was silent at the carnage unleashed upon the vulnerable Christians in Orissa, these are the same Hindus who have passed out of our schools, colleges and professional institutions, and these did not raise their voice to even protest.
"Religion is being used as a medium for political gains in India, and I am worried about the forthcoming elections both central and state. Here in Kandhamal and all of Orissa, everything is polarized and partisan. I am concerned about the safety of our people.
"Here the votes of our people do not matter. Most of our more than 50,000 people are destitute, all their documents and proof of identity were methodically and intentionally burnt to ashes, so they will not be able to even cast their votes in the upcoming election. And the unfortunate fact will be that the politicians will have achieved their end.
In the face of what seems to be a situation without hope, Fr Edward does not give up: "On a national level, there should be the political will for the situation to improve, the federal government should intervene. Until then, the situation seems bleak.
"I appeal to the international community to raise the issue of Kandhamal on an international platform.
"Everyone speaks of globalisation and the shrinking of borders, but most essential to globalisation is universal solidarity and international brotherhood.
"Or else, this globalisation will only lead to a decadent society. The attack on the Christian community in Orissa was a demonic manifestation of evil, and it is not enough to speak out. Measures must be taken, sanctions imposed, and even the international court of law should be invoked to prevent an incident like this anywhere in the world.
"Any transgression on the dignity of the human person or on a minority community should evoke feelings of revulsion in humanity, and such incidents should be addressed at international forum.
"Only when the world community, leaders and governments, are concerned about the quality of life and humanity - only then will our future be ensured - a future where the dignity of the human person is the first priority."