Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) - The pogroms in Kandhamal destroyed the lives, homes and holy places of the Christian community, but they have also given rise to a blossoming of the community's faith and sense of fraternity, without distinction of caste or creed. This is the heart of the reflections made by Msgr. John Barwa SVD, Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, to AsiaNews. August 25 will mark the fifth anniversary of the violent pogroms perpetrated by militant Hindu ultra-nationalists, that devastated the Christian community. The prelate speaks of his pride in his community "for our faith" and "the constant and serious effort to translate words into action." Below we publish the reflection of Msgr. Barwa given exclusively to AsiaNews.
The famous observation of Church father Tertullian (160-220 AD), "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church," has become a reality, in the growing church of Kandhamal, Odisha, eastern India.
The Mission in Kandhamal (a part of then known as Cuttack Mission) was started by the MSFS missionaries, followed by CM Priests. On June 1, 1947 this Mission was elevated to Mission Sui Juries of Cuttack by Pope Pius XI. With the commitment and dedication of the pioneering missionaries facing every hurdle with courage and confidence, the mission grew in leaps and bounds. On January 24, 1974 Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar was created. The Archdiocese has an area of 12,529 square miles, with a total population of 11,554,700. About 160,000 are Christians, and about 64,000 of who are Catholics.
Any growth is a process, which demands pruning, testing and sufferings. Within a span of 70 years, Kandhamal, where majority of Catholics of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar live, faced untold persecution for their faith in August 2008.
During the persecutions some 400 villages had been purged of all Christians, more than 6000 houses, 340 Churches, village chapels, dispensaries, and schools were burnt and destroyed, thousands were injured, several women and young girls including a nun, gang raped, and around 60,000 men, women and children rendered homeless. Total number of 75 persons (22 Catholics, 28 Baptists, 12 Pentecostals, 4 CNI, 1 Independent Church and 8 non-Christian tribals) including the financial in-charge of the Archdiocese were brutally murdered.
But after five years of the persecutions, I feel proud of my people of the Archdiocese. Today when I visit the corners of my Archdiocese, to bless and inaugurate the churches, village chapels, and to visit their villages, large numbers of people not only the Christians, but also others gather and participate in the celebrations with the words, "Persecutors destroyed and burnt our houses, property and massacred our beloved ones, but they could not destroy our faith and could not separate us from Jesus. We are proud to be Christians and proud of our faith." Today this voice is becoming louder and clearer day by day. It is the words that are heard, but there is constant and serious effort to translate it in actions and relationships. These sincere efforts of my people are clear sign of their growing in faith. Though they are poor and illiterates, rich in faith and I am proud of my people.
As shepherd of this persecuted land, I am invited to many countries around the globe to share "the growing faith of the persecuted people of Kandhamal". And during my visits, many do ask me the challenging question "you rebuilt houses and institutions... but there is rumor that persecutions will be repeated?" And my answer to this query is, "trusting in God we live, and make every effort as individual and community, through the socio-pastoral wings of the archdiocese with inclusive in words, actions and undertakings and build up 'a peaceful Kandhamal'. Yes, after all our efforts, if there is again persecution!!! We only surrender ourselves to God and say, 'Let Thy will be done, O God'!!!
Besides, today this mission that faced the violent persecutions has become the hub of Religious-Priestly Vocations and has become a Missionary Sending Region.
In line with the observation of Tertullian, faith in Odisha is growing precisely because of its violent persecution. Whatever may be the relative of such a discussion there can be no disagreement that Christians in Odisha have suffered painfully. And yet this persecution has made the faith stronger and has helped young and old people realize the value of faith, commitment and dedication.
The growing distinctions and divisions among Christian denominations in Odisha, in Kandhamal in particular, were evident. In the aftermath of persecutions, there have been strong bonds of unity, communion and fellow feeling. One single voice is heard from everyone today irrespective of caste and creed, "We need peace and harmony-not violence. Anyone promoting or perpetuating violence is against peace."
Within the span of five years, we have received support (both financial and spiritual) from far and wide in our efforts in rebuilding Kandhamal. With your generosity, we have built up most of the destroyed houses and churches, and we thank everyone wholeheartedly. However, our endeavors of rebuilding institutions, village chapels along with livelihood and the future of our people, women, youth and children have to continue. We are committed to empower people of all sections, especially the poor, marginalized and disadvantaged groups in their struggles for justice and peace.
The anti-Christian persecutions took place five years ago. As we mark the painful events, we remember and pray for those brave souls, and those who stand by us. Thus, let our pledge today and always be of promoting peace, justice and hope to all at all cost.