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Priest Recounts Close Brush With Death In Orissa

By Dibakar Parichha
9/10/08 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) – Father Bernard Digal, one of three Catholic priests who escaped death during anti-Christian violence in Orissa state, wondered if he would even get a burial after being beaten and left to die.

Father Digal, treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, was visiting Sankarakhole parish when the violence began on Aug. 24. He narrated his close brush with death to UCA News.

On Aug. 23, the priest and his driver Sisir Pradhan left the archdiocesan headquarters in the state capital of Bhubaneswar, 1,745 kilometers southeast of New Delhi. They reached Sankarakhole at around 10:30 p.m.

“We had dinner. As we were preparing to go to bed after a tiring day, we received a call” saying Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu leader based in the state’s Kandhamal district, was shot dead. “I could not believe it. We went to bed,” he recalled.

He recounted that he woke up the next morning hearing anti-Christian slogans and people “yelling outside,” saying they wanted to kill missioners.

Father Alexander Chandy, the parish’s 65-year-old pastor, Pradhan and Father Digal remained inside the church compound the whole day and moved to a forested area at night.

The situation “got worse” on Aug. 24, Father Digal continued. “We kept getting information on attacks and killings in villages. We got stuck in the forest and survived on dry food.”

Father Chandy was sick and could not walk far. To provide him better shelter, the younger priest and his driver went to the house of another priest’s brother in the village. They wanted to use his motorcycle to go to a safer place.

Father Digal said they saw the entire house, including the motorcycle, on fire. The two of them then went to see the priest’s sister in the village. She urged them to go to a safer place as people had threatened to destroy her house.

The two went to nearby Dudukangia village, where 15 Christian families lived. But the Christians refused them shelter, saying they too had received similar threats.

By then, night had fallen. Since returning to their hiding place in the forest was risky, the two decided to sleep in the village church that had already been torched. “It had only walls standing. We thought the mob would not come, and we were tired of walking all day. Our legs were swollen.”

At 11:30 p.m., however, people came to the demolished church. “Seeing the mob, we ran,” shared Father Digal. “Pradhan ran fast, but I was caught. The mob shouted to each other to kill me. I pleaded for my life, but they ignored me.”

The mob then hit him with crowbars and sticks. “The beatings came like heavy rain. They stripped me naked and asked for mobile phones,” the priest recalled.

He said he managed to run some distance but was caught. “I fell to the ground and they continued hammering me. Soon I saw blood flowing from my head and lost consciousness. They thought I was dead and left me.”

In his semi-conscious state, the priest said he thought he heard wolf cries and feared the animals would feed on him. “I thought I might not even get a burial. I prayed to the Lord.”

Later, two villagers came. By then, the priest’s body had become numb because of the wet ground and a cold night breeze.

The villagers brought the church’s broken door and helped him lie on it. They also brought him some water. “I was feeling a bit better,” he said, “and the villagers left me alone.”

His driver came looking for him in the morning, and later informed the police. Along with a few villagers, the police took Father Digal to a public health center in the village and later moved him to the district hospital.

After much pressure, the state administration brought Father Digal to a better hospital in Bhubaneswar. “There is no place left in my body where I was not beaten,” said the priest, who is now receiving treatment in a hospital in Mumbai, western India.