As I entered the Kandhamal district in India’s northeastern state of Orissa, I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful landscape opening up before me: jungle-covered mountains and villages tucked amidst valleys of rice fields left me awestruck. The view was almost beautiful enough to make me forget the unspeakable tragedies that happened and continue to unfold.
“What was it like when you arrived here during the 2008 riots?” I asked our Indian staffer. “We came into the valley and there were columns of smoke rising from many villages,” he said. “It looked like a war zone.”
Anti-Christian Riots and Continued Christian Suffering
The catalyst for the 2008 anti-Christian riots was the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. As a Hindu cleric, Swami was known among the Christian community for forcefully converting Christians to Hinduism through either social pressure or, in extreme cases, physical abuse. Tensions between Christians and Swami came to a boiling point in December 2007 when a Christian man threw a rock at Swami’s car as he drove through a Christian area of Kandhamal.
Swami was murdered Aug. 23, 2008 along with some of his closest followers in Kandhamal. Upon hearing this news, Swami’s radical followers immediately blamed Christians despite the Communists’ admission that they killed him. Mobs of enraged Hindus swept across Kandhamal perpetrating the worst Christian suffering modern India has ever seen. Six hundred villages were attacked; 5,600 Christian houses were looted and set on fire; 300 churches were torched and over 50 Christians were murdered. All told, over 54,000 people were left homeless.
The effects of this violence have rippled across generations of Christians living in Kandhamal. Even though the riots ended over four years ago, those three months continue to be defining moments for Christian suffering.
Families Broken by Violence
Days after Swami’s murder, Rajesh Digal, a local Christian, attempted to return home from his job in the city to check on his family. On the road, he was confronted by a mob of Hindu radicals. The mob surrounded Rajesh and questioned him about his religious identity.
Rajesh was identified as a Christian and the bag he was carrying was confiscated by the mob. When the bag was searched, Rajesh’s Bible was discovered. The mob descended upon Rajesh and began to savagely beat him.
After beating Rajesh so badly that he could not move, the mob dug a pit. Rajesh was thrown into the pit where the mob began to bury him alive. “Why are you burying me? I am still alive!” Rajesh screamed according to witnesses. “Call your Jesus. He will save you,” his murderers replied as they continued to bury him.
Like most Christians killed in the violence, Rajesh left behind a wife and children who continue to face a life of abject poverty with little hope of change.
A Systematic Denial of Justice
Christians not only suffer at the hands of Hindu radicals—local police and government officials continue to deny justice to many of the victims. None more so than seven Christians falsely imprisoned for allegedly murdering Swami, who have been imprisoned without trial for four years.
Because Christians were initially blamed for Swami’s murder, Hindu radicals demanded the local government arrest “the Christians responsible.” In response, the local government rounded up seven Christians at random.
“In the middle of the night, three police SUVs pulled up in front of our house,” convicted Christian Budhadeb Nayak’s wife said. “They broke down our front door and tore my husband from our bed. In nothing but his underwear, they dragged him out of the house and took him away.”
As their husbands continue to languish in prison on false charges these families face grinding poverty, insecurity and malnutrition. These families are forced to do hard labor or beg just to put food on the table.
During my visit, ICC provided them with immediate help. We are presently working on long-term financial assistance and legal help. For the past four years, the trials for these imprisoned Christians have been purposely delayed by local officials, including the police and judge adjudicating the case.
The Christians who survived the 2008 riots continue to suffer today; some as a result of violence committed by radicals operating unchecked by the police and others at the hands of the government officials sworn to protect them. Although this cycle of violence continues, believers are steadfast in their faith. “If we didn’t suffer because of our faith, we would be concerned,” a pastor from Kandhamal told me. “The Bible tells us that we will suffer if we follow Jesus’ example. Our Christian suffering confirms our faith.”