By Matters India Reporter
Bhubaneswar: The election of Cardinal Oswald Gracias as the leader of Catholics in India has brought joy to the survivors of the worst anti-Christian violence the country has witnessed in modern era.
“Cardinal Gracias has a soft corner for Kandhamal Martyrs’ issue. He is very much concerned about it. We are sure his positive stand would push for the martyrdom process,” Fr Ajaya Kumar Singh of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese told Matters India on February 8 soon after the prelate was elected the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India.
Kandhamal, a district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, was the scene of attacks on Christians during Christmas in 2007 and in the second half of 2008.
“the Kandhamal survivors appeal him to grant audience to update justice concerns as there is hardly any justice is done,” Father Singh said. He also said the tenth anniversary of the pogrom could be a time of introspection for the entire Church in the country about its response to the Kandhamal issue.
The priest, who hails from Kandhamal, wants the national Church to organize exhibitions, seminars and conventions on the geopolitics in India today.
Father Singh has been closely working with the Kandhamal survivors’ issue especially for their rehabilitation and justice.
Father Purushottam Nayak, who has been appointed to prepare a dossier for Kandhamal martyrs’ process, says Cardinal Gracias has met and listened to some Kandhamal survivors and their relatives. “He was quite willing to take up the matter with the CCBI (Latin rite). He favors martyr status for Kandhamal victims,” Father Nayak told Matters India.
John Dayal, former president of the All India Catholic Union, welcomed Cardinal Gracias’ election at this juncture of Indian history. “His vast experience in national and internal affairs will help guide the church through the turbulent times of the next general election,” the veteran journalist-turned social activist, told Matters India.
The lay leader expressed the hope that Cardinal Gracias’ leadership of the India Church would help Christians in the country “expedite the process of getting the status of martyrs for the victims in Kandhamal. I had discussed this with him several times together with Father Singh and others, and always found him very positive and very understanding,” Dayal added.
Since 2015, Cardinal Gracias has spoken to the Prefect of the Pontifical Congregation of the Causes of Martyrs in Rome. He was willing to speak personally to Pope Francis about Kandhamal violence and its martyrs.
He has already requested the head of the Church in Odisha, Divine Word Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack Bhubaneswar, to initiate the process. The Divine Word prelate has appointed a seven-member team to carry forward the matter.
On the Church front, the cardinal assumes charge of the national episcopal conference after the two Oriental rites were given all India jurisdiction. Cardinal Gracias also the president of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), the national body of the Latin rite prelates in the country.
“As president of CCBI, I hope he will also be able to stress the issue of getting constitutional status for Dalit Christians,” Dayal added.
The cardinal is also the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conference (FABC), and new president of CBCI
The Kandhamal violence that lasted for nearly four months in 2008 claimed more than 100 lives and rendered more than 50,000 people homeless.
“The Church is sensitive to modern-day martyrs who could be declared as saints. The roles of the witnesses of the martyrs are quite important and critical for this process. It is a tedious work and needs proper and timely documentation before anything happens to them and the issue is still fresh,” Cardinal Gracias had said in a 2015 interview.
The cardinal had met Kanak Rekha Nayak, wife of Parikhit Nayak, one of the victims of Kandhamal during the November 12-15, 2015, National Eucharistic Congress held at St. Pius X College, Mumbai.
On August 27, 2008, Kanaka Rekha Nayak fled home with her family, driven out by a violent mob. While she and her two young children managed to hide, the horde caught her husband, Parikhit, and demanded he renounce his Christian faith and become a Hindu. He refused.
From their hiding place, Nayak and her two young children could only watch as the rioters stabbed him to death, hacked at his limbs and finally burned his remains.
Cardinal Gracias had then said the most thrilling event during the Eucharistic Congress was the testimony of Kandhamal. Although he had met some widows of Kandhamal soon after the violence in 2008, he was touch when Nayak narrated the horrifying martyrdom of her husband.
A few months ago, the cardinal spoke to Vatican Radio reiterating the Indian Church to take up the Kandhamal martyrs’ cause.
The 73-year-old prelate further stated that the primary responsibility for initiating the process of Kandhamal martyrs’ cause lies with Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese that covers Kandhamal district.