Last August marked the six year anniversary of the brutal 2008 Kandhamal, Odisha massacre in India, but for Fr. Thomas Chellan, the memories have not faded. Even after all that time Christians in the region are still waiting for justice. Although most of the instigators have been caught, they have still not gone to trial, the priest said. “The local community utterly failed to protect the lives and property of their Christian neighbors,” he told international charity Aid to the Church in Need. Now living in New York, Fr. Chellan is safe from the persecution and violence he endured in India. However, he hopes the government will seriously investigate the massacre and others like it. Following the Aug. 23, 2008 murder of Swami Lakshmanananda, leader of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization Vishna Hindu Parishad, Hindu fundamentalists took the opportunity to attack local Christians, whom they blamed for the murder. In the months that followed, some 100 Christians were killed for refusing to convert to Hinduism and 50,000 people were displaced, while 5,600 houses and 300 churches were destroyed. “Yet, the Christian faith stood out shining amidst the rubble of burned out churches and Christian houses,” he said. Fr. Chellan survived the violent attacks, but said he expected to die more than once during that time. His story is just one of many of those who were persecuted for their faith. The afternoon after the murder, a mob of hundreds of people descended on his parish’s pastoral center. Fearing for his life, Fr. Chellan, along with his assistant priest and a religious sister, escaped by climbing over the wall of the compound and hiding out in the nearby forest until late into the night. “We could see our home going up in flames. The mob broke open all the doors and windows, thinking we were hiding inside,” he said. Fr. Chellan and the sister sought shelter at the home of a Hindu man who took them in despite the huge threat he faced from the radicals seeking out Christians. His assistant priest sought refuge at his brother’s house. The following day, a smaller crowd of about 50 returned to the pastoral shelter shouting anti-Christian slogans and carrying knives, sticks and axes. The Hindu man grew nervous hearing about this and asked Fr. Chellan to hide in a shed in his backyard while allowing the sister to remain in his home. The mob came and searched the man’s house and found the sister and Fr. Chellan. “I was pulled out and beaten with sticks and iron rods. I sustained injuries on top of my head, my forehead and shoulder,” the priest recalled. The sister and Fr. Chellan were dragged back to the pastoral center where they tore off the sister’s clothes and brutally raped her. The priest tried to intervene, but was overpowered by the mob. “When I tried to prevent the men from attacking her I was taken outside and doused in gasoline. Someone took out a box of matches. Seeing that I said my last prayers, thinking my end had come.” They tied him and the sister together and, even as a police car drove by and other police officers stood on as spectators, no one intervened. “A big pile of tires was set on fire. We expected to be burned alive. But the worst thing did not happen. The good Lord has his way. That is all I can say.” Eventually, their attackers and they were taken into the local police station where they safely spent the night. The next day, police took them to a safer station in the capital of Bhubaneswar where they were able to visit the archbishop, but were then taken out of state in order to receive medical treatment. “Looking back on all that happened, I thank God for giving both of us a fresh lease on life. We harbor no anger or bitterness toward those people who attacked and maltreated us,” Fr. Chellan said. “I only hope and pray that peace and justice may come to Kandhamal and that people can live there without religious discrimination.” Despite this persecution, he said that the Christian community has made strides in improving life for all locals of any religion, particularly by providing education. “Christians are claiming their rightful place in society, unwilling to put up any longer with religious and social discrimination.” He explained that the majority of the Christians in the area are considered to be Dalits, or part of the lowest caste in the traditional Hindu hierarchy. However, unlike Dalits who are Hindu or Buddhist, Christian and Muslim Dalits do not receive any government benefits, which Fr. Chellan says violates the Indian constitution.
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