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ICC Note:

In Kandhamal, a district within India’s Odisha state, the country witnessed its worst instance of Christian persecution in its entire history. Following the murder of a Hindu nationalists leader, Hindu radicals scapegoated local Christians leading to three months of mob violence. When the violence finally subsided, over 100 Christians had been murdered and 56,000 had been displaced. Following the violence, 7 Christians were falsely accused and convicted of killing the Hindu nationalist leaders in 2013 and have since remained imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. Still, the faith of these 7 innocent men continues to grow despite the persecution they have faced. 

07/19/2017 India (National Catholic Register) – Whenever I go to Kandhamal — the ground zero of one of the worst persecutions of Christians in Indian history — unexpected things unfold.

The primary objective of my visit mid-June to the remote jungle district in Odisha state on the east coast, where Christian targets had gone up in flames since August 2008, was to confirm couple of important stories, including elephants saving a Catholic youth from being burnt alive by a mob.

While in Kandhamal this time, I had the inspiration to try again to meet the seven Christians languishing in jail after being fraudulently convicted to life imprisonment for the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati that triggered the 2008 bloodshed and persecution.

Nearly 100 Christians became martyrs in the orchestrated violence that engulfed Kandhamal following the mysterious murder of the Hindu leader, shot dead in his ashram in Kandhamal on the night of Aug. 23.

While Church officials and Christian groups condemned the killing of the highest Hindu leader of Kandhamal district, located 200 miles southwest of Odisha’s capital city Bhubaneswar, Hindu nationalists promptly trumpeted the murder as a “Christian conspiracy” and targeted the district’s large Christian minority.

Thousands of Christians had to flee to jungles to escape the ignominy of being trooped into Hindu temples for a “reconversion ritual” to force them to recant their faith. During weeks of unabated mayhem, mobs led by Hindu fundamentalists plundered and torched 6,000 Christian houses and 300 churches, rendering more than 56,000 of them homeless.

As one who has keenly pursued the travesty of justice in Kandhamal from the beginning, the plight of the “Seven Innocents” has been close to my heart. During my frequent visits to Kandhamal, I followed closely their trial, which ended up in their shocking conviction in October 2013 and sentence to life imprisonment. Since my earlier attempts to meet them in the jail at Phulbani, Kandhamal district’s headquarters, had failed due to “strict orders” restricting access to them, I made yet another try June 17.

Since six of them had been moved recently to the jail at Balliguda, I met jail officials seeking permission to attend the routine weekly prayer with them, without revealing my identity. The official told me to submit an application — along with my proof of identity — that needed to be taken to higher officials for approval. That would have certainly been the end of it.

As divine intervention would have it, as one may call it, the official himself suddenly suggested that “the better option” would be to contact a pastor who has a “pass” to conduct Sunday prayer in the jail and accompany him. The official even gave me the pastor’s number. I was grateful for the opportunity and spent one and half hours in jail on Sunday morning, June 18 — without my name being even registered in the jail records!

The prayer with the innocents (along with two dozen other Christian inmates) was an unforgettable experience.

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