- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2009

Stairway to Heaven COLUMN

The popular film “Slumdog Millionaire” may be the public face of India these days but one Catholic archbishop now in Washington is trying to educate listeners about another India.

That’s rural Orissa, India’s least-developed, poorest state not far from Calcutta, the home of Mother Teresa. Last summer, a priest was tortured and a nun gang-raped in Kandhmal, a cauldron of radical Hinduism and the site of an anti-Christian pogrom in August.

The depressing details of it all have been previously described by this writer: 70,000 homeless Christians, more than 5,000 homes destroyed, 3,000 people missing and/or hiding in the nearby jungles for the past five months, 87 people burned or hacked to death and the infrastructure of the Catholic Church destroyed.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, 75, of Cuttack/Bhubaneswar and the spiritual head of five Catholic dioceses in Orissa, says 50 percent of Orissa’s 1 million Christians are Roman Catholics. French missionaries planted Catholicism there about 130 years ago.

Hundreds of their schools, churches and other institutions have been destroyed. Displaced people sitting in refugee camps are afraid to return to their villages.

“They believe they will be attacked again and again,” he said Tuesday, just after his plane landed here. “Those who have gone back have been forced to become Hindus, and the police are not stopping this. They have been mere spectators in this affair.”

Orissa has a law forbidding forced conversions but apparently this only applies to people who wish to leave the Hindu religion.

In Kandhmal, there are 64,000 Catholics in 34 parishes, many of them from tribal or untouchable castes; in short, India’s least-desirable people, located near the country’s aluminum mines. The real estate is valuable but the locals apparently are not, which is why the authorities have been less than zealous at curbing the mayhem.

“The damage there is colossal,” the archbishop said. “Our concern is to get people back to the villages. and to construct houses as early as possible.”

As for the unfortunate nun, she has fled to another state. But before she left, she appeared before 100 journalists, wearing a black veil to hide her features.

“They might eliminate her because she is responsible for a few people going to jail,” the archbishop said. Even when he visited some of the refugee camps last month, he was not allowed to wander beyond their confines because of death threats toward him.

“I’d like the American government to tell the government in India to take some serious actions to prevent this from happening again,” said the archbishop, who was at Georgetown University Wednesday. On Thursday, he speaks to U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops officials.

Friday afternoon, he appears at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in the District, as well as making a morning visit to the Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America’s office on Maryland Avenue Northeast. Saturday, Indian-Americans are having him speak at a reception, banquet and fundraiser at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Northeast.

The archbishop does point out that not all Hindus are at fault and that one Indian daily, the Hindu, has become quite supportive.

“But the fanatics,” he said, “want to establish a Hindu nation.”

• Contact Julia Duin.


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