Archbishop Cheenath, defender of India’s persecuted Christians, dies at 81

Indian pilgrims attend the Angelus address in St. Peter's Square, Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA.
Indian pilgrims attend the Angelus address in St. Peter's Square, Jan. 17, 2016. Credit: Alexey Gotovskiy/CNA.

.- Archbishop Raphael Cheenath, who lived through one of the worst Christian persecutions in modern India and spent the remainder of his life fighting for justice for those who suffered in the Kandhamal massacre, died Sunday at the age of 81.

Archbishop Cheenath had been Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar from 1985 to 2011. He passed away Aug. 14 at Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai, after a battle with colon cancer.

His death followed the successful outcome of a legal battle he brought forward to gain an increase in relief to the victims of the 2008 attack against the Christian community in the Indian district of Kandhamal.

In 2008, Hindu extremists led anti-Christian attacks on nearly 200 villages in Kandhamal, part of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar archdiocese. Around 30,000 people fled the East-Indian state of Odisha, and 6,000 homes were destroyed.

More than 100 people were killed, including a Catholic priest, and some 270 churches and chapels were desecrated in the attacks.

On Aug. 2 the Supreme Court of India upheld Archbishop Cheenath’s Public Interest Litigation for increased relief to the victims of the 2008 violence. The lawsuit was pursued after a Supreme Court ruling in Jan. 2009 had scaled back police protection and given no clear guidelines concerning compensation for victims.

John Dayal, a Catholic lay leader who worked closely with Archbishop Cheenath for more than 16 years, said in a Facebook post that the archbishop “provided leadership to a people who were shattered.”

In the years following the violent attacks and during the continued persecution of Christians by extremists, Archbishop Cheenath, along with other members of the Indian Catholic Bishops’ Conference, met with national political leaders on behalf of the victims.

Born Dec. 29, 1934 in Manalur, Archbishop Cheenath was ordained a priest of the Society of the Divine Word in 1963, and was appointed Bishop of Sambalpur in 1974. He remained there until his transfer to Bhubaneswar in 1985.

He retired at the age of 76 after shepherding the Catholics of Odisha for more than 25 years.

According to Matters India news, after his retirement the archbishop addressed some 3,000 people, praising the Christians of Kandhamal for their dedication to the faith despite living in a hostile environment.

“You have raised the faith into new heights at the face of death. I am proud of you,” he said.

In an article for the Herald of India, Dayal write that Archbishop Cheenath had “provided leadership to a battered and fragile community consisting of indigenous Tribal Kondh people and Dalit Panos groups…the poorest and the most marginalized segments of the population, to stand up to the worst form of persecution Christians have faced in over three hundred years.”

Archbishop Cheenath, he said, was “one of a kind, a hero of the faith for Christians.”

Tags: Church in India, Odisha, Kandhamal, Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar

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