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Orissa Church Mourns As Priest Injured In Anti-Christian Violence Dies

By Dibakar Parichha
10/29/08 BHUBANESWAR, India (UCAN) — The Church in Orissa state, eastern India, is grieving over the death of a Catholic priest who was attacked during anti-Christian violence.

Father Bernard Digal, 47, died on Oct. 28 in Chennai, southern India, 62 days after Hindu fanatics beat him severely.

The priest, treasurer of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, underwent treatment at a hospital in Mumbai, western India, after which he was convalescing in Chennai, Tamil Nadu state, where he knew people. On Oct. 25, however, he was admitted to St. Thomas Hospital with a high fever.

Doctors initially diagnosed dengue fever, but then had to operate to remove a blood clot in the priest’s brain, suspected to be from the physical injuries he suffered. Soon after surgery, Father Digal slipped into a coma, and died at 8:45 p.m. on Oct. 28 following a heart attack, archdiocesan sources told UCA News.

The funeral is scheduled for Oct. 30 in Raikia, a major Catholic center in Orissa’s Kandhamal district, where the violence was concentrated. Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese covers the district. Seven weeks of attacks against Christians began on Aug. 24, the day after Maoists killed a popular Kandhamal-based Hindu leader who opposed conversions to Christianity.

At least 59 people died and another 50,000 were rendered homeless as Hindu extremists attacked Christians’ homes, churches and institutions. Around 4,500 homes and 100 Church buildings were destroyed.

Father Manoj Nayak described Father Digal, who was attacked on Aug. 26, as “one of the pillars” of the Church in Orissa. He and other priests in the archdiocese find it hard to believe that Father Digal, a good friend and loving brother to all, is dead, Father Nayak said.

Moreover, he called Father Digal a martyr for his faith. “I am sure his blood will help the Orissa Church to overcome the current trials.”

Father Digal was ordained a priest in 1992 and served the archdiocese as parish priest, professor, vocation promoter, youth director, diocesan counselor, financial manager and spiritual adviser, Father Nayak said. The late priest was born in Tiangia, a village in Kandhamal district.

Father Richard Vaz, a senior priest in the archdiocese, told UCA News: “Let us pray that the funeral service may go smoothly without any further violence.” He reported the situation in Kandhamal continues to be tense and that most Christians from the district are keeping away.

Father Rabindra Swalsingh, another Cuttack-Bhubaneswar priest, says Father Digal’s vast experience in administration and pastoral life could have continued to help the Orissa Church a lot. He admitted that news of the death shocked and saddened him.

Sister Britto Bojja, who works in the archdiocese, told UCA News the local Church has lost one of the candidates nominated to become a bishop in Orissa. The St. Joseph of Annecy nun pointed out that the deceased priest was a consulter for the archdiocese.

Father Mathew Puthyadom, a senior priest who knew Father Digal as a high-school student, said his confrere maintained his simplicity and sincerity until the end. From a young age, Father Digal held good positions in the archdiocese, and now it is a great loss for the Church in Orissa, he told UCA News.

Ashok Nayak, the late priest’s childhood friend, called the loss “unfathomable.”

In September, before going to Mumbai, the late priest told UCA News he ran from the mob but was caught and hit with crowbars and sticks. “The beatings came like heavy rain. They stripped me naked,” he said. “Soon I saw blood flowing from my head and lost consciousness. They thought I was dead and left me.”

Father Digal recalled that in his semi-conscious state, 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.” Help came only in the morning, when he was taken to a local hospital, and from there to a better hospital in Bhubaneswar.

“There is no place left in my body where I was not beaten,” he had said.