Last week, ACNUSA staff had the privilege of welcoming Anto Akkara, a veteran Catholic journalist from India, and a dear friend. Anto had come to the U.S. to tell the story of the martyrs of Kandhamal, a jungle region in the east of India where five years ago 100 Christians died for their faith; survivors of the massacre still live in fear and great difficulty, many of them permanently banished from their homes and forced to live in poverty.
Anto has spent extraordinary amounts of time and treasure to chronicle the horrors and to help bring the perpetrators to justice. He just published "Early Christians of 21st Century," his fourth book on the massacre, which tells the story in agonizing detail. Anto's witness and commitment are extraordinary -- his passionate presentation left us stunned, numb, but also fired up and grateful for the opportunity we have to help the persecuted and suffering Church through the work of ACNUSA.
The title of Anto's new book is telling -- these were martyrs for the faith, just like the early Christians facing Roman persecution. The great majority of those who perished died not because they were Christian, Anto insists -- as is the case in Nigeria, Syria, Egypt, Kenya and elsewhere -- but "because they refused to renounce their faith." This is what happened. A Kandhamal man of dubious background reinvented himself as a swami or Hindu holy man and made it his business for decades to eradicate Christianity from the district, where 20 percent of the population is Christian. (Nationally, Christians account for less than 2.5 percent of the population.) In August of 2008 the man was murdered and Christians were quickly blamed.
A mob of his followers took his body and crisscrossed the district, stopping in front of churches to denigrate and threaten believers. This was their message: "Hindus worship cows, but Christians eat cows. So, we must treat Christians like they treat cows." These ominous words were carried out quite literally as faithful were cut into pieces, stoned to death, tied to trees and burned alive; a young nun was raped to applause of the crowd, a priest forced to watch. Each and every church in Kandhamal, 300 in all, was destroyed, along with 6000 homes of Christian families, leaving 56,000 homeless. Local police stood by.
Again and again Anto told us: these people had a choice; they could have been spared their fate by agreeing to reconvert to Hinduism; they refused to give up their faith in Christ, which would have involved a humiliating, denigrating ceremony in Hindu temples, the centerpiece of which is the drinking of "cow dung water" as a means of purification.
In many cases, remains were burned or otherwise disposed of to not leave a trace and prevent the families of victims to claim government compensation. In time, Christians identified more than 80,000 people as perpetrators, but police only managed to find 3,200 of them. Due to police inaction and the intimidation of witnesses, the investigation -- which is ongoing -- has so far only produced two convictions for murder and 75 convictions for violence.
Anto, who has gained national attention for his efforts, including the support of major political leaders, will do what it takes to see that justice is done. That the process is far from over is evident from the sentencing just last week of seven Christians from Kandhamal, convicted of murdering the notorious Swami, a travesty of justice, as the local bishop affirmed. "There was no shred of evidence against them," said Anto.
But "mysterious are the ways of God," a proclamation with which Anto signs his emails. The incredible bravery and witness of these believers has been producing incredible fruit. Anto, a seasoned journalist committed to the facts, confidently reports on a miraculous healing, as well as a rosary and a pectoral cross that survived the torching of a church completely intact. More amazingly still, a number of the swami's henchmen have themselves become Christians, drawing the ire of fanatical Hindus themselves. One particularly brutal persecutor of the faithful was nearly bludgeoned to death and blinded. "I want to do Christ's work," the man said.
Anto has spoken with numerous brave Christians, asking them over and over again: "was it worth it to refuse becoming a Hindu again? You could be living in comfort, but instead you are mired in poverty and living in a tent. Do you still believe in Jesus Christ, in the wake of the slaughter of loved ones?" The answers he recorded are startling. A once prosperous farmer who lost his wife and all his land, simply said: "Christ has taught me that we would be persecuted for our faith. We are all pilgrims on earth -- and this is not our permanent home." Another told Anto: "the Israelites spent 40 years in the desert, but we have been living in this refugee camp for only 14 months." Still another proclaimed: "I share in the Christ's suffering on the Cross."
Anto marvels that these simple, good people could muster such profound Christian wisdom and insight. After all there have been few priests and catechists around in Kandhamal in recent years. The answer is clear, said this brave journalist who in the course of his investigations was robbed of his camera and other equipment by state security personnel: "the Holy Spirit taught them."
At Mass last Sunday (Oct. 13, 2013), St. Paul's words to Timothy (2:8-13) spoke to the courage of Kandhamal's Christians: "If we have died with Him we shall also live with Him; if we persevere we shall also reign with Him." So too, the Gospel Acclamation: "In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus." Here in the US, we cannot help but ask: what would we have done in such almost unimaginable circumstances?
Aid to the Church in Need is an international Catholic charity under the guidance of the Holy See providing assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries. www.churchinneed.org