Wednesday 17 October 2012

"You killed our people but you could not damage our relationship with Jesus"

Arcebispo John Barwa
Full transcript of the interview with Archbishop John Barwa of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, in Orissa. News report can be found here.

Transcrição completa da entrevista feita ao arcebispo John Barwa, de Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, em Orissa. A reportagem está aqui.

Orissa was the site of serious persecution of Christians a few years ago, what happened exactly?
These were serious cases of persecutions, especially against Christians, both Catholic and of other denominations. This is mainly because the Christians in Orissa belong to the lowest groups of the society: Tribals and Dalits, who are known as untouchables.

These are the people who normally serve all others, but when missionaries came and started their work they realised that these were the people who needed them most. So they helped them with education, health care, developmental activities, and they started coming up and giving up their traditional work. And this is the main thing, because the Christians accept all as equal, as children of God, which for others is a difficult thing.
Also, India, in our language, Hindi, is called Hindustan, which means land of the Hindus. And so people from other religions and other groups are always seen as foreigners. Having missionaries make them Christians and elevating their situation is a fearful thing for the high caste people because they realise that if these lowest people start coming up in life and start getting good jobs, good houses, good money, what will happen to them and their future generations?

So they say to us, stop working for these people and we will have no problem. But our answer is, can we stop working for these people? Our vocation as Christians and followers of Christ is to work for these people, lost, least and last of the society.

The actual persecution began with the death of a prominent Hindu leader…
It started earlier, on Christmas day 2007, not with his death. He was attacked, not killed, on Christmas day he came on purpose to see the nativity scenes and decorations made by the young people, and there was a little tussle because he made some very arrogant statements against Christians. It was all planned, and the first thing they attacked was the Christian’s shops, because until then they had had the monopoly of the business. But because of their education Christians also started shops and businesses, and this made them angry.

Then the next stage and highest action of persecution was on August 23rd 2008 when the Swami was shot. His death was claimed clearly by the Maoists but they blamed it on us, because this was all prefabricated in every way and it was even published in the local language media.

That was when the worst attacks began, and they were massive. Almost 60 thousand people had to run away, because we didn’t want to react, and more than 6 thousand houses were destroyed. More than 350 convents and churches were destroyed and burned, hundreds of people were killed.

You were in Orissa at the time of the persecutions, did you experience it first hand?
Though I was not in that particular place directly, I was then coadjutor bishop of Rourkela. But there was a case of a religious sister who was gang-raped, and she was my niece. So naturally, belonging to the family, we all suffered the persecution directly.

Since then how have things been? Has there been justice? Have the Christians been allowed back to their villages?
The situation now seems peaceful. Almost all the people, accept those who wanted to leave, have returned. But when we talk about justice, it has not been done, our people have not received total justice and we have filed a case in the Supreme Court for proper compensation to be paid, because most of the houses have been rebuilt with our funds, churches have helped, and governments, just a little. So in that way justice has not been done, we are still waiting, but the atmosphere seems to be peaceful.

Have there been convictions?
Yes, but many of the local leaders who instigated the violence are said to be mysteriously dying. Which is still unclear, but there were many who were arrested, but since people were frightened of giving proper witness, they were acquitted. Even the rape case, the main culprits are in jail, but the case is on-going. But most of those responsible have gone free, because of lack of witnesses and lack of will power to catch the real terrorists and hold them responsible for this.

Namrata, queimada nas purgas em 2008
 Were there ever any reprisal attacks on the part of the Christians?
We have never heard a story of Christians reacting and attacking them. Instead, most of the people who were taking part in the persecution came and asked for Forgiveness. They say they did not know what they were doing, that they were given drinks and drugs and didn’t know what they were doing, and they apologised. And with no hesitation we say we are people of forgiveness. We have forgiven all that you did and let us build up a beautiful, peaceful land, where we can all live. This is what was surprising for them. All of us, even if we cannot forget the horrible things that happened, we forgive.

The case of your niece, she forgave when she was still in hospital. What does this make non-Christians think?
There is a sympathetic reaction. Because in India 80.3% of the population is Hindu, and they are wonderful people. And they support us. Only a tiny minority of fanatics and extremists whose language is killing and violence. The other people though, do not want to get involved, that is why these things happen. Otherwise they are wonderful people and they are ready to support us. They protected my niece, hid her, but she was discovered by the extremists.

You mentioned the lowest castes, and as far as I know you yourself are tribal. What is the story of your family?
My grand-father was the first to convert. He was a very convinced and dedicated Catholic, because he worked with the missionaries, and that is why my family is a very religious family, and I thank God for that. I grew up in a Catholic missionary situation and I am proud of it.

Did many Christians abandon their faith because of the persecution?
During the time of persecution people were afraid, because they were forced, either to convert or they might be killed. In that context, very few accepted in public, but in reality nobody accepted and all have returned to the faith.

Now the voice is that “you tried to separate us from Jesus. You killed our people, destroyed our property, damaged everything, but you could not damage our relationship with Jesus. This is the strongest voice, it is becoming louder and clearer, and this means that we are growing in Faith, and when I visit my archdiocese I see bigger numbers of people crowding for any religious celebrations, wanting to show we are not frightened. God is with us and God loves us.

Anti-conversion laws?
The anti-conversion bill has been passed in my state and it prohibits fraudulent conversions, people being offered material rewards for their conversions. But my question is, why only Christianity? Why can people not go to Christianity, but Christians and other religions can convert easily. It should be the same for all. There are hundreds who want to accept Jesus now, but because of this law we cannot baptise them openly.

Another difficulty is that the law says that there should be a first-class magistrate to confirm the willingness of the people. But when people go to the Government officials to say they are willing, everybody says they are not the first class officer. Nobody admits to being a first class officer because they don’t want to own up. Where do we go? These are the problems, and if it were not for this there would be many more conversions, because Christianity is the only religion which gives dignity to everyone, as Human Beings and as children of God, especially to the lost, least and last of society.

Officially the government has done much to overcome the caste system. Is it still a big problem for the country and for your region in particular?
The caste system is as old as humanity in India. I don’t think it will ever disappear. It will remain because high caste people, especially the Brahmins and the Kshatriyas, they do not want other groups, like the untouchables, to become equal, it will never happen. They will see to it that it is preserved, because they are the people who are in the administration, and in high ranking positions, and the Government and other agencies. So it will not happen, it will remain, though many good-hearted people are trying to abolish it.

Does it affect the Christians also? Is there discrimination amongst them based on caste?
I hear that in some states this is a problem and we are trying to talk it out in our common forums. Since I have never experienced it personally, I am not able to say much about these things, but it does exist, and it is a pitiful situation, and we wish and pray and work for the it to end, at least in the Church circle, where everyone is a child of God, and it has to happen, if not today, one day.

Mulher cristã de Orissa à porta de uma casa destruída
What could an initiative like the Year of Faith mean in a situation such as yours?
Before I left for Portugal I had a meeting with all my priests and I told them that in our arch-diocese we will begin the year of faith on the 14th, Sunday. All the prayers are already translated into our local language, and the main thrust is to let us grow in faith through prayers and good works and better understanding of each other. So teams have been set up in each parish, composed of priests, religious and laity, to propose programmes that will bind together. My hope is that there will be no more difference and that we can work together to make up a beautiful community for faith. In that we are more and more stressing the small Christian community, which everybody belongs to, be they rich or poor, thin or fat, but they belong to that Community which has faith in Jesus and that should unite us more and more.

What can those of us who are far away do to help your community?
First of all, on behalf of my people, especially those who struggle and suffer, I am here to thank each one of you, my dear friends. Because of your prayers and your generosity we have built up much of it. Lots of destroyed houses, churches and institutions have been rebuilt, and a lot of strength and courage is given because of your prayers and solidarity. I wish that you would continue praying for us.

Also, as a Christian community which has not suffered this kind of persecution, recognize that there are situations of this kind, and there are also injustices, separations and divisions.

Also, the European Union could also have a louder and clearer voice against this kind of injustice and persecution, not only in Orissa but anywhere they happen. That would be a great support and assistance.

You mentioned hundreds of people killed during the persecutions. Has there been any attempt to start a beatification process for them?
Many are saying so, that these stories should be told to the people around the world. When I became the archbishop I started a think-tank which will be monitoring a kind of research study of those who were martyred or killed. My wish is that they will one day be declared officially martyrs of the church. I have taken this to the Catholic Bishops Conference. They said present us with documents. No we are trying to document the real situations, because there are still people alive who can give us the concrete facts. I am very grateful also to the Aid to the Church in Need, who are helping us in this process of rediscovering the truth and telling the truth to the world, and also promoting the cause of these martyrs.

O arcebispo esteve em Portugal a convite da fundação Ajuda à Igreja que Sofre.

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