11/03/2008, 00.00
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Bishop of Orissa: We are being persecuted like the first Christians

by Nirmala Carvalho
Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Bhubaneshwar, comments to AsiaNews on the first pastoral letter of the bishops of Orissa following the violence that began at the end of August. The text calls for justice regarding all of the destruction, but also thanks many citizens and Indian and international organizations for their collaboration.

Bhubaneshwar (AsiaNews) - A pastoral letter signed by six bishops of Orissa was read yesterday in all the churches of the state, where for two months a pogrom against Christians has been underway. The letter is the first document published by the pastors since the beginning of the violence.

It is signed by Bishop Thomas Thiruthalil of Balasore; Bishop Alphonse Bilung of Rourkela; Bishop Lucas Kerketta of Sambalpur; Bishop Sarat Chandra Naik of Berhampur; John Barwa, coadjutor bishop of Rourkela; and Raphael Cheenath, archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar.

"Our people are traumatized by these ruthless and barbaric attacks, and we needed to encourage them not to lose hope," Archbishop Cheenath tells AsiaNews. "Moreover, we felt at this point in the history of Orissa to explain to the people the historical background of the persecution of the Church, the history of the Christians who for centuries who have been persecuted for bearing the name of Christ and for the faith. The early Church went through great hardships and martyrdom; its members were often persecuted and massacred. But history has shown that persecution ultimately strengthens the Church."

In the text, published "too late" by the admission of the bishops themselves, the pastors say they are "humbled by your strong adherence to your faith and by your trust in Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord. We are proud of you for your ability to withstand all forms of intimidations and threats."

The results of the violence since August 23 have been extensive: more than 60 people killed amid horrible torture; more than 180 churches (Catholic and Protestant) destroyed; thousands of homes burned; convents, youth hostels, hospitals, and social centers devastated; at least 50,000 Christians who fled the massacre living in the forests or in unsafe refugee camps set up by the government.

In recent days, Archbishop Cheenath presided over the funeral for one of the martyrs of Orissa, Fr. Bernard Digal, who died of complications from the beating he suffered, for hours, from Hindu fundamentalists in the district of Kandhamal, where the series of attacks began. The bishop says that "Now [in the the district of Kandhamal] there are no attacks because there is nothing left to be destroyed, burnt or looted - the extremists have razed everything to the ground - there are no burnings or destruction as nothing remains. Now our people are terrified of returning to their homes and villages because firstly, they will be attacked, and beaten up, their lives are still in danger - even though the new district administration is doing much to provide safety to the Christians. Secondly, our people are frightened of being forced to change their religion. Thousands have been tonsured and forced to embrace Hinduism as a prerequisite to return to their villages, as they have been warned that they can stay only as Hindus. And thirdly, many of the Kandhamal Christians have been forced to surrender their land and property, and this is a bleak future for our people."

The pastoral letter asks the government for security; for justice and for punishment of the guilty; for adequate compensation for those who have lost their property. But above all, the letter highlights the reasons for the persecution: "The Church has been standing by the side of the poor and the marginalized. Through education, health, housing and employment programmes, the Church has been bringing in awareness and awakening among the vulnerable communities. They in turn are demanding their rights. This is not liked by the powers that are since they fear their position being challenged by the poor people. Hence, they have taken to violence. But we condemn this and restate our resolve to continue the services of the Church."

The letter thanks "individuals, organisations, civil society organizations, media persons and houses, NGOs, academics, political activists, conscientious citizens" in India and abroad for their support for Christians.

According to Archbishop Cheenath, there has also been a change in the district administration of Orissa. "Christians have suffered," he says, "because of the inaction and at times complicity of the administration and police, but now with the new collector, and the change in attitude, the bishops of Orissa felt we needed to speak to our people." In recent weeks, the police have arrested a number of extremists held responsible for the violence.

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