Get the Catholic New World eNewsletter

Advertisements ad

The InterVIEW

Indian people do not feel safe, archbishop says

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in India visits with Lawrence Mascarenhas following a Feb. 7 talk at St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Cathedral in Bellwood. He introduced “Asha Kiran,” which means “ray of hope,” an innovative program to bring stability to Orissa, India.Catholic New World/Karen Callaway

A regular feature of The Catholic New World, The InterVIEW is an in-depth conversation with a person whose words, actions or ideas affect today's Catholic. It may be affirming of faith or confrontational. But it will always be stimulating.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, a Divine Word Missionary who leads the Archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar in the Orissa state in eastern India, knows something about religious persecution.

Archbishop Cheenath visited the United States in early February to raise awareness of violence perpetrated against Christians and Muslims by those he identifies as Hindu fundamentalists in the region, and also to ask for financial support for members of the Christian community, thousands of who lost their homes and their livelihoods in violence that started in December 2007 and flared again in August 2008.

The rioting and violence that started last August lasted about seven weeks, claimed more than 60 lives and displaced more than 50,000 people. Most of the victims were Christian.

He spoke by telephone with Catholic New World assistant editor Michelle Martin.

Catholic New World: What is the root of the trouble between Hindus and Christians in Orissa?

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath: The basic reason is that they, the Hindu fundamentalists, they want to establish a Hindu nation. They have been planning this for decades. Some 60 years ago, they took an oath saying they would establish a Hindu nation. In a Hindu nation there is no place for minorities, either Christians or Muslims. They are looking for a chance to enforce that. Every now and then, there is trouble between the Hindus and the Muslims and the Christians.

It’s not only in Orissa. They also attacked a number of locations in India. The basic reason is the same. They are trying to provoke and gauge the strength of the reaction.

CNW: What happened last year to exacerbate the problem?

Archbishop Cheenath: Before these attacks in December 2007 and August 2008, there were many such instances in Orissa, not only in my archdiocese but in other areas as well. We had an incident in 1989, 17 churches were destroyed by the same group. There are incidents sporadically, like attacking a missionary or attacking a catechist or burning their Bibles These attacks in December 2007 and 2008 were very well organized and very destructive as far as the losses were concerned. Many lives were lost and many people were displaced. It was a process of elimination of Christians from the whole country, and the Indian government is fully aware of it. They are not doing anything to prevent this. We have a coalition government. They are under compulsion to cooperate with some parties who have a majority of support from Hindus.

The general election is going to take place in March this year. All the political parties are afraid of offering any support to the minorities because it would be interpreted is helping the minorities.

CNW: What do you think the refugees will or should do?

Archbishop Cheenath: We had at the peek of the disturbance 24,000 refugees in 14 camps in the Kandemal district. This is not a large district. It has about 650,000 people.

Sometimes they attempted also to attack the camps although they were protected by the police. So the refugees thought they were not safe there.

Many went to southern states, some went to Gujarat in the northwest, some went to Delhi. The number of people in the relief camps was reduced to 8,000 refugees in Kandemal district in six refugee camps. There are 12,000 refugees outside Kandemal district in Bhubaneswar — that is the capital — and these are taken care of by the church and the nongovernmental organizations. They refuse to go back because they say they are afraid they might be attacked again. Whoever goes back is forced to become Hindus. Otherwise they are not allowed to harvest their crops. They cannot visit their place or rebuild their houses.

In the beginning the administration did not allow Christians and other nongovernmental organizations to visit the Christians in these camps. They were inspired by the fundamentalist groups saying the Christians were converting the Hindus by giving them services.

The people who went away are not coming back. Now the state has changed its mind they have invited the church and the missionaries to help by motivating the people to come back.

CNW: Should the refugees come back?

Archbishop Cheenath: They should come back. They have their property and their belongings and their friends and family. But there has to be a feeling that they will be safe. Probably, it may happen after the election, not before that.

Since December 2007, not a single person has been charged and punished. Those who committed these crimes feel that they are safe. The people feel very unsafe.

CNW: Do you think there will be any resolution to the problem?

Archbishop Cheenath: It is only a hope. It is not absolutely. Suppose the Hindu party gets the majority, that will not change. If another party gets the majority, we hope maybe a favorable situation.

CNW: What did you hope to accomplish by coming to the United States?

Archbishop Cheenath: I was invited here by some of my friends in the states. I belong to a missionary congregation and they invited me to appear because they wanted to hear more about the situation. They have got some information, and so they wanted me to speak with them. I found that they had heard something, but not in detail. I wanted to make the people aware of what has happened and in an objective way.

Also, a tremendous lot of damage of has taken place — millions of rupees of damage to property, to belongings, people who have lost their lives. For many people, it has been months since they earned any money, and it will be months before they can work. Some people need help dealing with the trauma they have faced.

The total destruction and money required for rebuilding is enormous. That’s one of the reasons I am here to appeal to the general public and the agencies and the organizations to help with that.

To donate to the relief effort, make checks payable to Divine Word Missionaries/ Orissa and send to Divine Word Missionaries, 1835 Waukegan Road, Techny IL 60082-6099.