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Hero of the faith
  By John Dayal  
  In a year which marks the centenary of Saint Alphonsa and Blessed Mother Teresa, most would find it difficult to find another authentic Christian hero for the faithful in India.

Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, who is now better known across the globe as 'Archbishop Cheenath of Kandhamal', is indeed one of a kind, a hero of the faith for Christians. This for having provided leadership to a battered and fragile community consisting of indigenous Tribal Kondh people and Dalit Panos groups, the poorest and the most marginalised segments of the population, to stand up to the worst form of persecution Christians have faced in over three hundred years.

The last such large-scale violence against the faithful was at the hands of Tipu Sultan, King of Mysore, who ravished the West Coast of the Konkan and drove the Catholics on a long march to captivity.

What Cheenath and his people faced was the full hatred of religious bigots, described by political scientists as the Sangh Parivar. The Sangh violence of the 1990s against Christians saw the emergence of Archbishop Alan De Lastic of Delhi as the undisputed leader and spokesman of the Christian community in the country.

Alan took to advocacy at the highest level, representing the community's cause with the highest political leadership in the land, and when that failed to rouse the national conscience, led the community into radical action, including all India agitation such as the strike of December 4, 1998 which saw every educational and medical institution run by the community close down for a day in protest.

The government's response, then, and of the Bharatiya Janata Party now, was to call for a national debate on conversions, a ruse repeatedly used by the Sangh Parivar to coerce the community and subvert Constitutional guarantee of freedom of faith.

The Sangh violence in Kandhamal was at a much higher pitch, lasted much longer and affected more people than the mayhem had in 1998 or even earlier. When the fires died down in the plateau of Kandhamal right in the middle of Orissa, more than 54,000 people had become refugees in their own homeland, over 400 villages had been purged of Christian presence, a hundred people had been killed and over 5,600 houses burnt. Children lost their childhood, those going to school lost years of academic progress.

A Nun was gang raped, and there were reports of many other rapes and molestation. Girls were molested, and into the third year, some had been victims of human trafficking.

For many, the trauma was worse -- they had been told they could not return to their villages till they became Hindus, a process accomplished by forcibly shearing off their hair and making them drink a mixture of the dung and urine of a cow. Most refused and were severely beaten up and brutalised. They remain the real heroes.

In a way, Cheenath had a lifetime of experience in the tribal regions of central India to know how to respond even to the unexpected. Raphael Cheenath, born in Manalur, Kerala on December 29, 1934 joined the Society of the Divine Word, worked in Madhya Pradesh and Orissa as a missionary priest, and was eventually appointed Bishop of Sambalpur. He was named the second Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese on July 1, 1985. As missionary priest, Bishop and Archbishop, he had worked closely with the Dalit and Tribal communities. It is an interesting fact that his Bishop's house is almost entirely staffed by people from Kandhamal.

When violence broke out, first in December 2007 during Christmas and then in August 2008, it was natural for a duty-bound Cheenath to convey the cries and the anguish of the victims to the national political leadership. With other colleagues of the Episcopacy in the Catholic Bishops Conference of India, he met the President of India and the Prime minister, the Governor and the Chief Minister of Orissa. When the Chief Minister refused to meet the Christian delegation which had called on him, Cheenath led the clergy group to stage a Gandhian "dharna" or sit-in at the residence of the Chief Minister till the man, Mr Naveen Pattnaik, agreed to meet them.

The fires however continued to rage in the forests. It was the forest, like a mother, which sheltered the refugees, preventing a much higher death toll. But they were without relief. The district officers refused permission for Church agencies to bring in relief.

The Sangh had feared that church relief agencies would further convert people or spread Christianity! The media was not helpful.

Cheenath had the courage to go to court. He has consistently shown this commitment to justice, to the need to challenge the legal system of the country to deliver justice to religious minorities. This is not as easy as it sounds. Justice still eludes most in Kandhamal, and it is the legal review system that has been put in place by the church that is ensuring that the Fast Track courts trying several of the criminal cases are closely monitored and preparations made for remedial action.

Cheenath's writ petition in the Supreme Court was the first of the many steps that would have to be taken in courts, and it produced results. If over 2,000 of the houses have now been completed and relief agencies are working, it is because of that court action.

Cheenath would sound out the justice system more than once. He became the first Archbishop, or Christian leader, in living memory to appear before a Judicial Commission, the Justice Panigrahi Commission, to put on record the plight of the common and the poor of his community. He refused to be cowed down by the cross examination of hostile lawyers, most of whom were politically aligned with the Sangh Parivar.

It is not that the Archbishop has not faced charges from the lesser informed among clergy and lay persons, mostly for not being physically present in Kandhamal in the initial weeks, and coming first to Delhi and then staying back in the Bishop's House in Bhubaneswar. But to say this is to not fully understand the geography of the area and the political and violence situation.

There was hardly a Catholic institutional building intact in the entire region. It may be recalled that a bomb was thrown at Bishop's house during Christmas 2007; the complaint of this was made to the police by no less than Father Bernard Digal, then Treasurer of the Archdiocese.

One of the great tragedies of Kandhamal was the martyrdom of Fr Bernard, who left the comparative security of Bishop's house to travel close to 300 kilometres to see the ground situation in the district, which also happened to be his homeland. His own village had been devastated. His brother and family had seen their hut being burnt to the ground, and were now staying with thousands of others in a refugee camp.

Bernard was waylaid, and beaten savagely, and then left for dead. He was rescued by others a day after, brought to hospital. He almost recovered after intensive treatment in Mumbai, but eventually succumbed to his internal injuries and complications in a hospital in Chennai just when everyone was expecting him to be declared cured.

That showed the threat to all clergy and religious, especially women who were absolutely not safe. The Archbishop had been identified by the Sangh Parivar and named as their main enemy. The Sangh staged dharna and agitations in Bhubaneswar asking for his immediate arrest. The threat to the Archbishop's life and liberty was very real. The Sangh was trying hard to implicate him and some other Catholic leaders in the murder of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad vice president Lakshmanananda Saraswati whose murder, acknowledged to be their handiwork by left-wing militant Maoist groups of the region, that had triggered off the violence. The body of this man had been taken in a procession of over 200 kilometres through the hills and valleys of Kandhamal, accompanied not just by Sangh leaders, but even by the highest district civil and police authorities.

The district authorities were just not ready to take the risk for a survey of the violence by the Archbishop, afraid both for his security and possibly that his presence could make the Christian community rise in revolt in the refugee camps where living conditions were barely fit for animals. And when finally Cheenath did come to the district, it had to be while being escorted by an armed convoy.

There had also been charges, muttered silently and gossiped through SMS messages and emails that while Pentecost pastors stayed with the community even in refugee camps, the Catholic priests had gone to the forests. Cheenath had even in the Christmas 2007 violence given clear instructions to the men and women under his charge that human lives were precious and sacred, but buildings could be rebuilt. Cheenath has toured Europe and other countries, but more important, it has been his witness in many states in the country that has encouraged and strengthened the community and given it hope.

Through his evidence before visiting human rights groups, and as important, before emissaries of various countries and the international human rights movement, including the Untied Nations Human Rights Council through its Special Rapporteur, Cheenath has been successful in explaining to the world the danger that neo Nazi and fascist groups, riding a narrow religious nationalism, pose not just to India, but to international peace. We cannot say this of many other religious leaders in the country today. As someone who has seen him at close quarters over the last three years, I have come to respect and admire Archbishop Raphael Cheenath. His life remains under threat. But Cheenath has been a veritable Admiral, leading his men and steering the community to security, and peace while maintaining pressure on the State to give Justice to the victims. (Courtesy: Indian Currents)
The writer is a human rights activist, member of the National Integration Council and former president of the All India Catholic Union
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