India / Orissa: “They will never give in…”

By | September 11, 2019

Sister Kiran and Sister Sarojini get ready
for another long day of work. They belong to the religious order of the Society of Jesus,
Mary and Joseph. Nothing can disturb them during their morning prayer – not even the
lingering smell of smoke – a grim reminder of August of 2008.
Back then this Catholic education centre was on fire. Fundamentalist Hindus in the
Indian state of Orissa burned down some 5000 houses, churches and pastoral
centers belonging to the Christian minority. The violence was triggered by the murder of a prominent nationalist Hindu leader. He was
killed by leftist rebels with no connection to the Christian minority whatsoever.
But the nationalist Hindus took advantage of the moment to demand that all Christians
should leave the country because they are considered a foreign religion with no right
to exist in India. At the end of the violence there were 70 people killed, some 50 000 displaced
people and countless ruins. The pastoral centre in which the two sisters
live has been fixed up for now. Right after the violence the sisters were sent here by
their order to help the dislocated Christians. Sister Sarojini had just finished her education
in the convent. I was saying shall I go or not, that question,
so many question was within me. I do not know how to proceed this work, I was questioning
myself and I was praying also to God: Lord help me, I do not know what to or I never
studied for that also. Like that I was questioning myself and I was praying – but anyway it was
a different experience for me. The Catholic Church in the small town of Raikia. One of its buildings served for a time as
a storage place for emergency aid. But now all are dispensed except for a few metal boxes
for valuables. The emergency food is almost all gone as well. Today the sisters are packing
rations for just 3 families in a nearby camp. The food was donated from catholic charities
in Germany. Sister Sarojini and sister Kiran are the only
ones that still come to the camp on a regular basis aside from occasional visits by the
Red Cross. One of the families they visit today is the one from 50-year-old Gobinda
Nayak. This metal box contains all the valuables he has left. This small space in a tent is
what he calls home now. Gobinda once had a nice, big house. But now it all lies in ruins… We believe in God as described in the Holy
Bible. We cannot worship Hindu Gods. We have been raised as Christians by our parents and
grandparents. In our faith we are all considered equals and no caste system declares us as
outcasts and untouchables. Because we did not convert to Hinduism they destroyed our
houses and forced us to flee from our villages. Till today fundamentalist Hindus advertise their politics on campaign posters like this
one. The killed leader to left – his successor on the right. Between them the God Krishna
and the famous historic military leader Adjuna thus transferring their power to the contemporary
politicians. The billboard is located in the centre of
the town Raikia. Whenever the sisters come to town they have to pass it. The sisters
remember all too well the message that the killed Hindu leader never got tired of repeating: And being a leader he said that you kill Christians,
rape Christians and he said, let us destroy Christianity because Christianity has com
from foreign and let them go to foreign to celebrate their Easter and Christmas. The next camp they visit can be reached only on a motorcycle. It is located in the mountains
of the eastern Indian state. Today the sisters bring clothing for the men and children in
the camp. For their fundamentalist Hindu neighbours the members of the tribal people had all but
one fault: they were Christians. They were expelled from their homes and camp out now
in this patch in the forest. Like the refugees themselves the sisters are
also members of the tribal people, which are considered the lowest rank of the social fabric
in India. But this is not the only reason why the two are so cordially received wherever
they go. But we come and stay one day two days and
we used to eat with them and we used to sleep with them so that we are like that – we come
and stay here. When I was in the convent I used to think,
oh I have to go for a prayer. It is time for prayer, but I never need that I need prayer
for my spiritual life. But when we came to people and saw their faith.
It is that my faith is nothing, their faith is much more greater than our faith. A striking example of strong faith is the family of Pramila and Godabari Pradhan. He
is a day labourer and one of the „untouchables“. For a long time he worked for a local Hindu
farmer who promised him a good plot of land for a fair price. Godabari paid the price
– but then all hell broke loose. Without blinking an eye, the neighbours watched how
their little house was wrecked. When the young mother comes back to her destroyed
house in the company of the two sisters, the neighbours repeated their demand: ‘if you
want to return to your place you have to convert to Hinduism.’ The response of Pramila Pradhan
leaves no doubt: In Christianity there is peace and love. We
want to live peacefully with all people. I do not want to give that up just because there
was so much violence against us. I will remain a Christian. Kiran and Sarojini promise to take care of this case.
A few days later they visit a workshop for legal aid. The lawyer teaches representatives
of displaced Christians about their rights and laws regulating compensation for the damage
they suffered. After the workshop the sisters explain the
case of Godabari and Pramila. The lawyer does not hesitate to accept the case. He is confident
to retrieve at least the money paid for the plot of land. A few days later they are back in the camp in the forest.
The young mother is delighted to hear that they will get back the money for the acre
they had paid already. They will make good use of this money.
Next to their little huts the refugees have started to build new homes. Some of the building
material they got from religious aid agencies. What is lacking they recover from their destroyed
houses or from the forest. The mountain range of Orissa. Almost everywhere one can find these kind of small churches.
In one of them Arun Digal served as a priest for quite some years.
Now the sisters accompany the priest on a visit that weighs heavily on the young man.
For the first time in 8 months he returns to his village and his former church. Like
so many other Christians Father Digal was chased away by a vicious Hindu mob in August
2008. This is all that is left from his parish church. A campaign poster of the fundamentalist Hindu
party that instigated the riots is still to be found on the walls of the house of his
neighbour. Today Arun Digal returns for the first time
to his parent’s house as well… The destruction was done by outsiders – but
it was the villagers, his neighbours who directed the outsiders towards the houses of the Christians.
The neighbours are reluctant to face Arun Digal. But then a brief encounter takes place.
The man wants to know how Arun’s parents are doing and where they live now. But when
Arun asks the man who destroyed his parent’s house, the man falls silent, turns away and
leaves. Like many others in the village he was threatened by the ruling Hindu party:
whoever talks about those who were responsible for the destruction has to pay a stiff fine
of 1500 Rupees to the party. And that is more than most here can afford.
Even Arun’s cousin was threatened that his house would be destroyed as well, if he would
talk about those who had organised and executed the persecutions. The threats seem to be effective.
Women and children with who Arun grew up don’t dare to stop. But his visit carried a clear
message: I get more courage now because seeing the
destruction of my house has strengthened my faith. So I have lost my house but I have
not lost my faith and I stand at my faith. 10 : 10 : 22
While Arun’s small church lies in shambles – a new church is being built not even 20
kilometres away. Like most parishes in the district of Kandhamal the Catholic community
of Simonbadi is a poor parish. Without outside help they would not be able to put up this
building. Therefore organisations like “Aid to the Church in Need” help them out substantially.
This new church however was planned long before the violence of August 2008. But now with
so many other churches in the district being destroyed, this new church takes on a whole
new meaning: The violence failed to weaken the Christian
faith let alone eliminate it. More to the contrary, the new church is bigger
and stronger than ever. 10 : 11 : 15
Sister Kiran and Sarojini are on the road again headed for the next camp. In this location
the refugees have to fend for themselves. There is no support for them anymore, neither
by the government nor by the Red Cross, which is still present in some other camps. Many
families have settled provisionally in deserted market stands.
Again the people turn to the sisters with their hardship. These women tell about a young
mother who is sick in the hospital after giving birth.
The parents of this girl cannot pay tuition for school any longer after having lost everything
in the violence of August 2008. Sister Kiran encourages the girl strongly
to continue going to school. Sr. Kiran promises to collect the tuition among her sisters in
her convent at least for the next school year. When night falls over the camp, the sisters
are once again invited to stay for dinner. Before they leave they pray with the internal
refugees. 10 : 12 : 36
Late in the evening the two are back in the burned out pastoral centre of Jana Vikas.
They have lived since 8 month. This period has been a time of profound changes for both
of them: Morning as I was so enthusiastic and fresh
with mind and heart …as the sun goes down I feel more exhausted and it is not only that
because I travelled, I am exhausted, but by listening to people, their problems, their
difficulties and the way they are living, that makes me more sad and more tired. But as I met them it is not that I am so sad,
but all the more I feel happy, that I could reach people and my presence made them to
be happy. I didn’t help them through any material
goods or anything, but my presence made them to be happy and some kind of consolation that
they had. They are not left alone somebody is behind them.
So this gives me a more strength and it is not that I was walking around alone but God
was with me and he was leading me and taking me to the people. So that gives me a satisfaction.

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