By Elise Harris
The green light has officially been given to open the cause for sainthood of the nearly 100 Christians murdered in the Indian state of Odisha in 2008.
The opening of the cause is a source of pride for the relatives of those killed, but also “for the whole Church this is a pride because our men, our women and our children, those who were martyred for the faith, they are not forgotten,” Archbishop John Barwa told CNA Jan. 5.
Although those killed often lost their lives in gruesome ways, “their death has brought newness of life (and) newness of faith, and for this all of them (the victims’ families) feel proud.”
Archbishop Barwa oversees the diocese of Cuttack Bhubaneswar in India’s Odisha province, and was put in charge of organizing the cause by Cardinal Oswald Gracias.
Cardinal Gracias, who is the Archbishop of Bombay, President of both the Catholic Bishops Conference of India and of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, and a member of Pope Francis’ “Council of Nine” cardinals, gave the official OK to begin the process to declare the Christians massacred in 2008 as the “martyrs of Kandhamal.”
Following the August 2008 murder of Swami Lakshmanananda, leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization Vishna Hindu Parishad, Hindu fundamentalists attacked the Christian minority in Kandhamal district of Odisha, whom they blamed for the murder.
In the months that followed, nearly 100 Christians were killed for refusing to convert to Hinduism and 56,000 people were displaced, taking refuge in forests where they were susceptible to starvation and deadly insect bites. Some 6,500 houses and 395 churches were destroyed, and about 10,000 people still haven’t returned due to fear of reprisals.
Some who had converted to Christianity from Hinduism were targeted in the attacks. After the ordeal was over, some of the converts returned to Hinduism out of fear, though they continue to believe in and practice the Christian faith secretly.
The families and friends of those who died have recounted stories of the brutal deaths of their loved ones, many of which include torture, the demand to renounce their faith, dismemberment and worse.
In an interview with Agenzia Fides published Jan. 4, Cardinal Gracias said that he began to actively encourage the Indian Church to take on the Kandhamal martyrs’ cause after meeting with the wife of one of the victims last November.
He said that he has already spoken to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Angelo Amato about the process, and that he is “willing to speak personally about Kandhamal violence and its martyrs to Pope Francis.”
In his comments to CNA/EWTN News, Archbishop Barwa said that the official initiation of the process “has been great” for Christians in India given the various challenges they face as a minority, including fundamentalist threats.
“This will be a strengthening for the revitalizing” of the Christians affected by the 2008 attacks, he said, adding that the cause “will be truly a strength for the Christians, especially in this region.”
The archbishop noted that since he was not in Odisha when the massacres took place, he had to wait to gather more information before he could advance the martyrdom cause.
Now that things are moving forward, the archbishop has met with the council of his episcopal conference as well as some of the leading priests and religious in his diocese to discuss the formation of a team who will work on the cause.
Though the team has yet to be formed, Archbishop Barwa said he is discussing candidates with his collaborators.
In the meantime, he said that plans are moving forward to build a memorial for the martyrs. A location has already been selected for a small museum commemorating those who were killed.
While religious tensions in the area have cooled to the extent that Hindus piled into churches alongside Christians for this year’s Christmas celebrations, the archbishop said that fundamentalists will always exist, but that as Christians, “we will go ahead with building up what’s best.”
One thing the archbishop said has impressed him about the Christians of Odisha after his appointment in 2011 is their commitment to their faith.
He noted that one of the first things he did as bishop was visit all of the parishes, priests and religious in his diocese to speak with them and give them a message of hope.
In response, what Archbishop Barwa heard from his people was that “Yes, they have destroyed all our property, our houses, and have killed our loved ones, but they have not destroyed our faith and we are proud of our faith.”
The advancement of the cause of martyrdom, then, “will be a boosting up (of) the faith and also it will bring a tremendous amount of unity and solidarity to our people.”