Aid to the Church in Need’s Head of Projects in Asia, Veronique Vogel, travelled to India from October to November in 2016. She visited the Indian Catholic Church in Orissa (now known as Odisha).
Below is an interview about her trip.
Q) Odisha had always been a place where people used to live peacefully together in spite of differences in religion and social position – Hindus, Christians, indigenous groups (called Tribes), Dalits – until 2008, when suddenly an explosion of violence against the Christians happened. How is the general situation now in Odisha?
A) After some years the situation has now improved. There is no more violence. Most of the people returned to their villages. If this was not possible, they were resettled somewhere nearby. So the situation has much improved. However there is still fear; the fear is in the heart of the Christians - Catholics and Protestants - because through experience they have learnt that an eruption of violence can happen at any time. They have also noticed that the people who instigated the violence against them were people from outside their region motivated by the Hindu nationalist party BJP’s fundamentalist ideology. So they know that, as long as the BJP is in power in India’s central and local governments, it can happen again. So the situation is much better, there is in fact no violence – but the people are still worried.
Q) What kind of tensions still exist?
A) The people from the BJP initiate people to be violent on two levels. On the one hand they try to shake up the tribes to be violent against the Dalit community. They cause trouble in communities that used to live in peace. Tribes’ people are usually landowners, whereas most Dalits are not. But the latter also want to rise in society and have the right to own land. These BJP people say to the tribes, even if they are Christians: “Look at these Dalits, they are coming to you and want to have the same rights. They want to have their own land.” And so they start to spread mistrust. Then on the other hand you have a religious motivated harassment i.e. the fundamentalist Hindus trying to drive Hindu villagers against their Christian neighbours.
Q) For many years ACN has been helping in Odisha, but especially the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar and within this Archdiocese in the Kandhamal district, which was badly affected by the riots. What were some of the more emotive moments for you during your visit?
A) Yes, we went to some villages where we had financed chapels and for me it was really moving to see how the people welcomed us. They waited for us outside the villages and accompanied us with dance and song to the chapels. I liked the chapels a lot. They very well done with nice colours, somewhere decent where the villagers could worship in a good way. They were happy to say “thank you” both for the construction of the church building, but also because they had not been forgotten. They were touched that we had taken the trouble to visit them.
After the joyous welcome another very emotive experience for me was to feel the sudden change in atmosphere when we sat down together and listened to the villagers speak about their past traumatic experiences. The joy of five minutes before abruptly changed to people telling terrible stories along the following themes: “Our neighbours came to our house, they wanted to kill us; we ran for our lives and they took everything we had and destroyed our houses”. They also told us how in this rage a lot of people were injured and some even cruelly killed. Despite all this it was very impressive to see that they remain strong in their faith, they said “we never thought of abandoning Jesus, we want to stay Catholic and we are proud of that.”
I was moved by the fact that they remain joyful, appreciated our help and still have a strong faith, but on the other hand they are still very hurt in their hearts and minds after what they went through.
(Catholic tribals in Kandamal district in front of their new church financed by ACN. The old church was destroyed in the 2008 riots © Aid to the Church in Need)
Q) In your opinion, which are the biggest challenges for the Church in Odisha?
A) I think one of the biggest challenges now is inter-religious dialogue. The Church has maintained a dialogue with the Hindus, even the more radical ones, in order to make people understand that the Catholic Church is working for the good of all the people and it is not there to put one group above the other. The Catholic Church will never say that Hinduism is not a good religion, but rather that we all want to live in harmony together. The Church believes that this mosaic of religions in Odisha - Hindus, Christians and some Muslims - may be a tool for harmony and peace. The Hindu fundamentalists try to impose the very dangerous idea that to be a true Indian you have to be a Hindu. Through interreligious dialogue, the Church tries to make clear it to the people that they all belong to one nation, one country and they can live together in harmony.
A positive impact of this exchange between the Hindu government and the Catholic Church is that the Christians who suffered from the persecutions in 2008 will now have access to compensation for their losses.
Q) Are there also challenges within the Catholic Church itself?
A) Yes, an internal challenge for the Indian Catholic Church in some parts of India is to more acceptable to people coming from different backgrounds, especially in the context of its caste system. The Church has to heal these divisions sometimes even within itself.
Another challenge for the Church is the ongoing formation of both the clergy and the lay people, because of two reasons: first, the faith is still young in some places; and second, even if the faith is strong, the knowledge needs to be deepened. That’s why both clergy and lay-people have to be well formed. Sometimes the clergy is not in the front of the clashes but lay-people. Through good formation they can react better and sooner when in a village some people are spreading wrong information against Christians. They can reply in the right way: “no, this is not like this”, this is also a way of keeping peace. This is why ACN helps in the formation of the lay people as well as of the clergy and sisters, who need better qualifications in theology, philosophy or missiology.
(Catholic tribal villagers work on the building site of a Church in Rourkela diocese. ACN has supported the building © Aid to the Church in Need)
During the ACN trip considered the needs and the priorities of the Catholic Church in the district of Orissa (Diocese of Balasore, Berhampur, Cuttack – Bhubaneswar, Rourkela and Sambalpur). The Catholic charity has been requested to help in 29 new projects for this priority region where Christians are discriminated against: The main focus of ACN’s help is the formation and training for lay people e.g. Dalits and tribal youth leaders - and seminarians. ACN also supports the construction of small village chapels and the construction of a convent. ACN will, furthermore, provide transportation means to the local Catholic Church with two bikes, a moped and a car.
Directly under the Holy See, Aid to the Church in Need supports the faithful wherever they are persecuted, oppressed or in pastoral need. ACN is a Catholic charity – helping to bring Christ to the world through prayer, information and action.
The charity undertakes thousands of projects every year including providing transport for clergy and lay Church workers, construction of church buildings, funding for priests and nuns and help to train seminarians. Since the initiative’s launch in 1979, Aid to the Church in Need’s Child’s Bible – God Speaks to his Children has been translated into 172 languages and 50 million copies have been distributed all over the world.
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