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Holy Week passes peacefully in Orissa, where ‘fear still stalks’

By Ignatius Philo Sarto
04/14/09 RAIKIA, India (UCAN) — Holy Week passed peacefully in traumatized Orissa state, but fear that violence might recur kept many Catholics away from their parish.

In most of the 14 parishes in Kandhamal district, the epicenter of seven weeks of anti-Christian violence that Hindu radicals launched last August, the Holy Week liturgies were low-key events that few people attended.

In Pobingia parish only 20 people, four of them nuns, attended the Holy Thursday liturgy, reported Father Prasanna Singh, the parish priest.

“I had to choose four women,” the priest said, referring to the ceremonial re-enactment of Jesus’ washing the feet of the 12 Apostles at the Last Supper. Church norms stipulate that those selected for the foot-washing should be men, but the congregation in Pobingia included only eight men.

“Christian men are afraid to come out in the open for fear of being attacked,” Father Singh said.

Hindu fanatics who attacked the parish during earlier violence in December 2007 destroyed the church, presbytery and convent, a hostel and about 100 Christian homes. The 2008 violence in the district killed about 60 people and displaced 50,000, mostly Christians, and destroyed 4,500 houses, convents, presbyteries and other Church institutions as well as about 100 churches and prayer halls.

Most of the displaced people have left the district and do not want to return for fear of further attacks, Church people say. Of the Catholics who remain, many kept away even from the services commemorating Jesus’ passion and death leading to his resurrection on Easter Sunday, core events of Christian faith.

In order to avoid trouble, six Kandhamal parishes organized services earlier than usual to so people could return home before dark.

“Fear still stalks the area,” despite police guarding churches, said Father Reginald Fernandes, who came from Calcutta archdiocese with another priest and a nun to spend Holy Week with Catholics in Kandhamal.

In Pobingia, the parish priest and Missionaries of Charity nuns live in the repaired presbytery. The church, hostel and convent are not yet cleared of all the debris, Father Fernandes said.

Hardly 300 people attended the Good Friday service in Balliguda parish, where about 1,000 people would attend Holy Week liturgies in the past.

“We used to have the Way of the Cross procession through public roads, but this year we did not want to take any risk. We had the service within the church premises,” said the parish priest, Father Probodh Kumar Prodhan.

Samir Nayak, 22, walked in the procession wearing a white T-shirt with a yellow cross embroidered on its front and back.

“I am ready to give my life for Christ,” said the Balliguda youth. Several fellow parishioners were killed during the 2008 riots.

Such commitment led Holy Cross Sister Christin, a member of the Calcutta team, to describe their week among the survivors as very meaningful.

“Though church buildings are down, the Church of the people of God is up in the face of the youth. That gives hope,” said the nun, who works with Basic Christian Communities in Calcutta.

In some sensitive places, the turnout defied the climate of fear. About 600 Catholics attended a night vigil in Raikia, reported its parish priest, Father Bijoy Kumar Nayak. Noting that his area was one of the most affected by the violence, he said such a crowd showed extraordinary courage.

Marks of Christians’ suffering in the region — burned and destroyed homes, prayer halls and chapels — are starkly visible along the road and lanes leading from Raikia toward villages.

Almost every other structure flies a saffron flag. Pamphlets had instructed Hindus to do this last year lest their dwellings be demolished, people said.

Relief camps run by Orissa state remain home to around 3,200 displaced people, and were also the sites of some Holy week liturgies. At the Mondasoro camp, 500 residents and 200 people from outside the camp attended the services.

Hindu radicals destroyed the 109-year-old church, an orphanage and convent in Mondasoro in 2007. Before these could be rebuilt, the 2008 riots forced many to flee, said Father Jugal Kishore Digal, the parish priest.

“Christians are afraid to return to their villages. Many who returned were forced to become Hindus,” said Bijoy Nayak, a leader in the Montakia camp.

People will go back to their villages if the government supports them, he added. Otherwise, they will leave the district “once and for all, for survival.”