Orissa: after his calvary Father Thomas willing to go back to serve those who hurt him
Mumbai (AsiaNews) – Fr Thomas Chellan, 57, was one of the first victims of the anti-Christian pogrom launched by the Vishva Hindu Parishad after the assassination of Swami Laxamananda Saraswati last 23 August. Only after being beaten, abused, wounded, stripped, was he rescued by the police at the end of his calvary. A nun was subjected to the same violence, perhaps treated with even greater brutality. The Pastoral Centre in Kandhamal was one of the first Christian institutions to be destroyed, torched.
Father Thomas, who is now recovering in hospital, has agreed for the first time to talk about his ordeal. Forcing himself to speak, he is still hard pressed to describe the fury that hit him; in his words, “savage” is not enough to convey the sense of it all. “The manner in which they were beating us with axes, spades, crowbars; it was as if we were not humans. These attackers, I am sure, were paid by others to torture and beat us.”
Father Thomas now has only one concern: the thousands of people on the run (perhaps 50,000) hiding in the forest. “Right now there is not a single priest or nun in Kadhamal district; everyone has fled. Plundering goes and people are hunted down. In my agony I pray for the Christians in the forest. But even that is not a safe place. If my bishop sends me though, I am willing to return.”
“Along with my physical wounds, Christ is healing by emotional scars; I feel no bitterness or anger; I am even prepared to serve those who attacked us. [. . .] I am glad to be part of the rich history of persecution of the Catholic Church in India.” (NC)
For the past seven years I have served as the director of the Divyajyoti Pastoral Centre (in the diocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneshwar). The Orissa State Armed Police (OSAP) had agents in front of our Centre for more than a month because of a number of incidents in Tumbudhibandth after a cow was killed.
When I saw the news on TV of Swami Laxamananda Saraswati’s murder I called the OSAP for protection. They told me not to worry: “We are here.” I was reassured. But around 4.30 pm on 24 August a huge crowd came to our gate shouting slogans.
Fearing for our lives, I, a fellow priest and a sister tried to escape jumping over the back fence of the property. We could hear people shout, doors breaking, windows shattering . . . . After a short while we saw smoke and flames.
Feeling unsafe we fled into the forest and stayed there for a few hours. Around 8 pm we reached the house of Prahlad Pradhan in K. Nuagaon village; he was kind enough to accommodate us giving us food and shelter.
Around 9 am on 25 August, from my room window I saw a crowd tear down a small church.
Realising the danger Prahlad hid me in an outhouse and locked me from the outside. At about 1.30 pm a group of 40 to 50 people came, broke open the door and pulled me out. Outside I saw that the sister was already standing with the crowd; they had caught her first. Immediately they began hitting me all over, forcefully removing my shirt and banyan (vest or undershirt).
They kept asking me: “Why did you kill the Swamiji? How much money did you give the killers? Why are you conducting so many meetings at the Pastoral Centre?”
Pushing and pulling us, the crowd led us to the Janavikas Building on the other side of the road.
They were armed with lathis (long canes tipped with a metal blunt), axes, spades, crowbars, iron rods, sickles etc. and continued beating us inside the building.
They tore off the sister’s blouse and began assaulting her. When I started to object I was beaten with an iron rod on my right shoulder.
They took me out, poured kerosene on me and were set to strike some matches to burn me. At that point one of them suggested they take me into the middle of the road to burn me there. They dragged us to the road where they made me kneel for ten minutes. Someone searched for a rope to tie us together and burn us alive. Then they decided to parade us through Nuagaon, half a kilometre from there. We were paraded half naked. They told us to fold our hands and walk. They tried to strip away our remaining clothes, but somehow both of us managed to resist. As we walked people showered us with blows. Someone hurled insults at us in Malayalam.
When we got to Nuagaon at 2.30 pm there were a dozen OSAP agents on the side of the road. “Sir, please help us!” I told one of them. Once I spoke someone from the crow struck me for asking help. As for the policemen he just stood there, looking on. There were no police personnel at the Nuagaon outpost.
The crowd forced us to sit by the road side. Someone kicked me in the face. Then someone I knew very well, a shopkeeper in Nuagaon, went to pick up used tires to burn us.
At one point the crowd told us to go K. Nuagaon; along with one of the officers we were taken to a police outpost. There I was stitched up, bandaged and had some ointment applied on my wounds.
Around 9.00 pm an inspector from Balliguda and a team of policemen took us to Balliguda. One of the people from the crowd that attacked us remained at the police outpost until we left for Balliguda, watching all our movements. Once in Balliguda we were sheltered at a police bungalow; people there were very helpful.
At 9 am on 26 August we were taken to the local police station where the chief inspector asked us whether we wanted to file a complaint. When we said yes he told us to be quick because he was preparing to move us to Bhubaneshwar (280 kilometres from Nuagaon).
We filed three complaints, one for the attack against the pastoral centre; one for the attack against me and for the attack against the nun.
At 4 pm we were put on a comfortable bus and with other passengers were brought to Bhubaneshwar. We got off around midnight on 27 August, a few kilometres after Nayagarh. Some friends were waiting for me and took me away in their car. At 2 am we reached one of our centres in Bhubaneshwar.