Mgr Barwa: the "martyrdom" of Kandhamal victims must be recognised
by Santosh Digal

The archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar calls on the Indian Church to celebrate Kandhamal Victims Day on 30 August. For him, “such violence should never take place” again. The Odisha government has said that it would also pay compensation for churches.

Bhubaneswar (AsiaNews) – The victims of anti-Christian pogroms in Kandhamal, in the Indian state of Odisha, "must be recognised as martyrs,” said Mgr John Barwa SVD, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who spoke about the  canonisation process of the more than 100 Christians murdered in 2008 by Hindu extremists.

This year the Catholic Church in India has launched their cause and established a ‘Martyrs Day’ on 30 August. The bishop calls on everyone - faithful, institutions, associations - to join the prayers in memory of the unprecedented and ferocious persecution of India’s Christian minority. The greater the participation, the greater the message “that such violence should never take place” again. The interview follows.

Your Excellency, the Church in Odisha is going to observe Kandhamal Victims Day on 30 August. Why did it take seven years to do this?

The anti-Christian persecution took place in 2007-2008. My tenure as Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar began in 2011, i.e. five years ago. I took the time to study the situation better and get familiar with it.

In any event, it is never too late. The Odisha Catholic Bishops Council (OCBC) decided to observe the ‘Kandhamal Victims Day’ on 30 August every year. Our goal is that in all the parishes and institutions in the six dioceses of Odisha, eastern India, will a have common celebration to remember the people who suffered and died during the violence.

What can the Church in Odisha do for this and how?

It is wrong to think that the Church hierarchy will do it. It is not the bishops who will lead it, but people themselves should come forward in a powerful way and show their enthusiasm. We are hopeful that things will happen in its own time. Our priests should encourage the faithful for the cause so that it can become something that can perpetuate praying for those killed. It should happen like a movement.

I am impressed that every year a group of lay leaders, priests, civil society groups and others have realised the importance of remembering and marking Kandhamal Victims Day to remind the government of the great atrocity committed against innocent people and of the great threat to Christianity. It sends a strong message to everyone and the world that such violence should never take place again in the history of Kandhamal or in any part of the world.

For the martyrdom or beatification process, can the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar ask the Holy Father to wave the necessary five years to start this process? Do you wish to speed up the process?

It is already eight years since 2008. The anti-Christian persecution of 2008 is a well-known fact. I am for it and for speeding up the process. I hope that the CBCI and the Indian Church can join forces in this common cause in a proactive manner.

Do you see any obstacle?

No, there is no obstacle. There should be greater interest and enthusiasm for the cause in every corner of the Church in India. Let the issue of Kandhamal be a part of the Church in India. This will accelerate the effort and process in a positive way.

Has the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar set up any mechanism for this purpose?

Yes, we have undertaken efforts to document and research the Kandhamal violence. Teams have been formed to study the issue. More than this, for the people, it should become a way of “feeling and thinking”.  

What is your message for Kandhamal Victims Day this year?

Let the Kandhamal victims be recognised by all and be given importance as ‘martyrs’. I am trying my best as archbishop to push forward the cause, but others need to support it. The Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CBCI), the highest body of Bishops in the country, says that I am in a hurry to start the process to declare saints of Kandhamal victims. The CBCI also tells me that nothing is happening on the ground.

On the other hand, a group of people and priests in Kandhamal and Odisha keep on telling me to start the process of declaring them ‘martyrs.’ I am in between. Whatever the case, it is my sincere belief that there should be movement throughout the year to pray for those who died, in every village, parish and institution, on a regular basis.

On 19 August, you met Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and asked him to speed up the Supreme Court’s order for additional compensation to Kandhamal victims who lost their houses and properties. How did the meeting go?

We apprised him about our demands. The authorities said they will do everything necessary.

Your Excellency, did you ask for compensation for the churches, convents/ and institutions even though the Supreme Court did not mention them in its order to the State government?

Yes, we did. Some of the ministers in Odisha government and department secretaries assured us that they will add churches and institutions as beneficiaries for additional compensation in the light of Supreme Court order, even though the latter did not mention them specifically.

We have provided the list to the state government and are waiting for a response.