Bhubaneswar, India, Mar 14, 2014 / 11:03 am
In a decison praised by the local Church, a judge in India sentenced three persons Friday for the 2008 rape of a nun during mob violence against Christians in the state of Odisha.
Riots in Odisha's Kandhamal district began Aug. 24, 2008, after a Hindu religious leader, Laxmananada Saraswati, was killed. While Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for the assassination, Hindu extremists blamed the local Christian community.
During rioting the next day, a nun was beaten, raped, and paraded semi-naked in Baliguda, a town in Kandhamal. She has said she was dragged from the home of a Hindu where she had taken shelter, along with a priest, the BBC reports.
Nine persons were arrested in connection with her rape, and three of these were found guilty March 14.
"Justice is partially delivered to the nun, and the diocese welcomes the judgement delivered by the District Session Court of Cuttack," Fr. Santosh Kumar Digal, press officer of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, where Kandhamal is located, told CNA March 14.
He added, however, that in "several cases" related to the 2008 violence, "significant delays have led people to lose hope" in the justice system.
Many accused in the Kandhamal riots have been acquitted due to laxity in prosecution, lack of evidence, or witnesses' fear of prosecution, fear, or coercion.
Fr. Digal said the judgement in this case "would send positive signals and revive people's faith in the judiciary and law of the land."
The Catholic community is urging greater collaboration with the local government in providing security and in empowering human development in the area; nearly half of Odisha's residents live below the poverty line, and the figure is three-quarters in Kandhamal.
"The fundamental rights, freedom enshrined under the constitution shall be protected and guaranteed equal justice to all its citizens, retold Fr. Santosh.
"We are thankful to all who sustained their support -- especially to the women support-group lawyers, NGOs, police, and the people who stood with us in our difficult time."
Fr. Digal added that he has spoken to the nun several times, and she has stood strong in faith "and has forgiven the perpetrators" of the crime against her.
Cuttack District Sessions court judge Gyana Ranjan Purohit convicted Santosh Patnaik of rape, and Gajendra Digal and Saroj Bahdei of molestation.
The six other persons arrested in connection with the rape were acquitted for lack of evidence, and one more suspect is still being sought by police.
Patnaik was sentenced to 11 years in prison, and Digal and Bahdei to 26 months.
According to the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese, the two months of violence in 2008 left 93 dead; 6,500 homes burned and looted; and 350 churches and 45 health and educational centers destroyed.
The BBC reports that more than 25,000 Christians were rendered homeless by the riots; the archdiocese still continues to rebuild homes and institutions in Kandhamal.
Hindu extremists in Kandhamal accused Christians of bribing poor and low-caste Hindus to convert, while Christians have said low-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape the caste system.
According to Fr. Digal, "allegations of forced conversions are baseless."
A local catechist told CNA there has been "ignorance and insensitive hatred," without understanding or knowledge of Christians.
There is an "identity crisis" in Odisha – also known as Orissa -- and many people there believe that all who read the Bible or attend church are indistinguishable, the catechist reported. This generalization, without going into a person's causes for converting, leads to accusations of false conversions to Christianity.
More than 94 percent of Odisha's population is Hindu; Christians and Muslims both account for some 2 percent, and the remaining 2 percent are Sikhs, Buddhists, or Jains. In the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, Catholics account for 0.5 percent of the population.