ACN’s Head of Projects in Asia, Veronique Vogel, travelled to India from October to November 2016. She visited the Indian Catholic Church in Orissa (now known as Odisha). The interview was conducted by Maria Lozano.
Odisha had always been a place where people used to live peacefully together in spite of differences in religion and social position – Hindus, Christians, indigenous groups (called Tribes), Dalits – until 2008, when suddenly an explosion of violence against the Christians happened. How is the general situation now in Odisha?
After some years the situation has now improved. There is no more violence. Most of the people came back to their villages or, should this not be possible, they have been resettled somewhere nearby. So the situation has much improved. Anyhow there is still fear; the fear is in the heart of the Christians – Catholics and Protestants – because they have learned that an eruption of violence can happen anytime. They have also noticed that the people who instigated the violence against them were people from outside their region motivated by the Hindu nationalist party BJP’s fundamentalist ideology. So they know that, as long as the BJP is in power in India’s central and local governments, it can happen again. So the situation is much better, there is in fact no violence – but people are still worried.
What kind of tensions?
The people from the BJP instigated people to be violent in two levels. On the one hand they tried to shake up the tribes to be violent against the Dalit community. They cause trouble in communities which used to live peacefully. Tribes’ people usually are landowners, whereas most Dalits are not. But the latter also want to rise in society and have the right to own land. These BJP people say to the tribes, even if they are Christians: “Look at these Dalits, they are coming to you and want to have the same rights. They want to have their own land.” And so they start to spread mistrust. And on the other hand you have a religious motivated harassment: the fundamentalist Hindus try to drive Hindu villagers against their Christian neighbours.
Since long time ago ACN has been helping in Odisha, but especially the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar and within this Archdiocese in the Kandhamal district, because it has been so badly affected by the riots. Can you tell me what the most touching moment was for you?
Yes, we went to some villages where we have financed chapels and for me it was really moving to see how people welcomed us. They waited for us outside of the villages and walked us with dances and songs up to the chapels financed by our benefactors. I liked the chapels a lot, very well done with nice colours, something decent where they can worship in a good way,. They were happy to say “thank you” both for the construction of the church building, but also because they were not forgotten by us and that even nowadays we take the trouble to come to them.
Another very emotive experience for me was to feel the joy of the people welcoming us and how suddenly the atmosphere changed completely when we sat together and they started to speak about what happened in the past. You have the joy five minutes before and then suddenly you have people who tell you terrible stories like: “Our neighbours came to our house, they wanted to kill us; we ran for our lives and they took everything we had and destroyed our houses”. They also told us how in this rage a lot of people were injured and some even cruelly killed. And it was very impressive to see that they remain strong in their faith, they said “we never thought of abandoning Jesus, we want to stay Catholic and we are proud of that.”
I was moved: they are still joyful, they are able to thank us and still have a strong faith, but on the other hand they are still very hurt in their hearts and minds after what they went through.
In your opinion, which are the biggest challenges for the Church in Odisha?
I think one of the biggest challenges now is interreligious dialogue. The Church has maintained a dialogue with the Hindus, even the more radical ones, in order to make people understand that the Catholic Church is working for the best of all the people and it is not there to put one group above the other. The Catholic Church will never say that Hinduism is not a good religion, but that they all want to live in harmony together. The Church believes that this mosaic of religions in Odisha – Hindus, Christians and some Muslims – may be a tool for harmony and peace. And it is not because you belong to another religion that you are not an Indian. The Hindu fundamentalists try to impose the very dangerous idea that to be a true Indian you have to be a Hindu. Through interreligious dialogue, they try to make clear to the people that they all belong to one nation, one country and they can live together in harmony.
A positive impact of this exchange between the Hindu government and the Catholic Church is that the Christians having suffered from the persecutions in 2008 will now have increased compensations for their losses.
Are there also challenges within the Catholic Church itself?
Yes, an internal challenge for the Indian Catholic Church in some parts of India is to accept better people coming from different backgrounds, especially in the context with its caste system. The Church has to heal these divisions sometimes even within itself.
Another challenge for the Church is the ongoing formation of both the clergy and the lay people, because of two reasons: first, the faith is still young in some places; and second, even if the faith is strong, the knowledge needs to be deepened. That’s why both clergy and lay-people have to be well formed. Sometimes the clergy is not in the front of the clashes but lay-people. Through good formation they can react better and sooner when in a village some people are spreading wrong information against Christians. They can reply in the right way: “no, this is not like this”, this is also a way of keeping peace. This is why ACN helps in the formation of the lay people as well as of the clergy and sisters, who need better qualifications in theology, philosophy or missiology.
During the trip ACN could appreciate the needs and the priorities of the Catholic Church in the district of Orissa (Diocese of Balasore, Berhampur, Cuttack – Bhubaneswar, Rourkela and Sambalpur). The pontifical foundation has been requested to help in 29 new projects for this priority region of strong discrimination against Christians: The main focus is the formation and training for lay people – e.g. Dalits and tribal youth leaders – and seminarians. ACN also supports the construction of small village chapels and the construction of a convent. ACN will, furthermore, provide transportation means to the local Catholic Church: two bikes, a moped and a car.