Journalist documents power of forgiveness on anniversary of Christian persecution in India
Christian refugees living among the brush since they were not allowed to return to their native villages after refusing to participate in a "reconversion ritual" in February 2009. | Photo credit: Anto Akkara
Aug. 23 marked the 15th anniversary of one of the worst Christian persecutions in Indian history: the Kandhamal bloodshed in the eastern state of Odisha in which nearly 100 people were brutally killed for refusing to renounce their Christian faith.
To mark the occasion, journalist Anto Akkara held a screening of his new documentary, “Good News of Kandhamal,” which captures Kandhamal’s “amazing saga of faith.” The film was shown for the first time in New Delhi on the anniversary of the 2008 bloodshed.
Akkara told CNA that he wanted to do something memorable for the anniversary “since my engagement with the poor but valiant Christians in remote Kandhamal jungles changed the course of my life.” The 25-minute documentary — the sixth Akkara has made on the subject — brings together powerful testimonies collected from some 35 arduous trips he has made to Kandhamal over the past 15 years.
“What Kandhamal witnessed in 2008 was a terrible tragedy, but the poor and illiterate Christians of Kandhamal have turned this worst systematic persecution in Indian history into ‘good news,’” Akkara told those gathered in the community hall of the Archdiocese of Delhi.
“Due to their incredible forgiving response, even the assailants who tried to banish Christianity from Kandhamal are now embracing the same faith,” he said in his remarks at the screening.
Following the Aug. 23, 2008, murder of 81-year-old Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, Hindu nationalist groups promptly blamed Christians for the crime and “banned” Christianity in the area, leading to the persecution, torture, and murder of many.
Those who refused to forsake their faith were burnt alive, buried alive, or chopped into pieces, resulting in nearly 100 martyrs, as documented by the Church.
More than 300 churches and 6,000 Christian homes were plundered, rendering 56,000 homeless for years in Kandhamal.
“Fifteen years later, Kandhamal is good news for Christians everywhere to rejoice as the assailants could not force any Christian to recant their faith in Christ,” Akkara said at the screening. “On the contrary, hundreds of Hindus, including fundamentalists, have embraced the Christian faith.”
Akkara told CNA he was thrilled earlier in the day of the screening “when God made this anniversary day more memorable as my fifth Christian witness documentary ‘Right Hand of Hand over Kandhamal,’ released this past Easter, crossed the milestone of 200,000 views — a couple of hours before [this new] screening.”
“That, I have no doubt, was divine acknowledgement [of] my spirited campaign for truth and justice for Kandhamal’s voiceless Christians with my books and social media campaign, beginning with my first film [released during] Holy Week 2009.”
In 2013, Akkara published the book “Early Christians of the 21st Century,” chronicling the incredible witness of Christians in Kandhamal. The book was announced to the public by Cardinal Fernando Filoni, prefect of Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples at the Silver Jubilee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India in the presence of over 130 bishops at the Marian shrine of Vailankanni in southern Tamil Nadu state.
Akkara launched in March 2016 an online signature campaign demanding freedom for seven Christian men who were fraudulently convicted for the Swami’s murder that triggered the bloodshed. The campaign was launched by bringing to New Delhi the illiterate wives of the seven men, with prominent Indians and political leaders joining the launch of the campaign. The men were eventually released 11 years later in 2019.
In his speech at the film screening, Akkara also paid tribute to journalist Kuldip Nayar, who he said “stood with me like a godfather in the Kandhamal campaign and died on the 10th anniversary when I was getting ready to launch my first documentary that exposed the shocking political conspiracy behind Kandhamal.”
Akkara said he didn’t want to mention the names of the high-profile leaders involved in the fraud in Kandhamal at the screening; instead he wanted to focus on “the power of forgiveness as a weapon,” which his new film depicts.
“Kandhamal has been a deeply spiritual pilgrimage for me. Doctors cautioned me when I was airlifted to Bangalore in 2011 with a fractured leg: ‘You will be lame for life…’ Ignoring caution from the doctor, I traveled to Kandhamal and was healed at the spot where the first martyr of Kandhamal — paralyzed youth Rasanand Pradhan — was burnt alive. I am a witness to their faith and that’s why I feel it is my duty to speak up for them,” he told the audience at the screening.
Numerous dignitaries, including a bishop, were to attend the premiere of Akkara’s film, but heavy rains and traffic jams prevented them from reaching the community center, which is in the heart of the city, in time. The three panelists who managed to attend were all connected to Kandhamal and have visited there several times.
(Story continues below)
Subscribe to our daily newsletter
Annie Raja, an activist and the general secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women and a panelist at the screening, said: “I have no words to describe what Anto has brought out today. ... I salute him for the persistent campaigns for Kandhamal’s people like a one-man army.”
Raja recounted her trying visits to Kandhamal and the experience of hosting a nun later at her home who had been raped during the persecution.
“I saw reconversion ceremony rituals and was almost attacked there. When the raped nun was brought to Delhi [to address a press conference to expose the cover-up] the traumatized nun stayed in my house and police recorded her testimony … I cannot forget what she shared,” Raja said.
Another panelist, Sudhakar Pawar, a pastor and professor at Caleb (theological) Institute, coordinated the construction of houses for the homeless in Kandhamal on behalf of Christian groups and told the group gathered for the film that it was “challenging.”
At the screening, John Dayal, an outspoken Catholic human rights crusader and columnist, congratulated Akkara for “faith, zeal, and perseverance over the years for the cause of justice for Kandhamal.”
Journalist Anto Akkara, a correspondent for CNA in India, contributed to this story.