"Ohh... sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble... Were you there when they crucified me on the Cross!" These haunting words with the accompanying melody of this hymn were the theme throughout this Sunday's service at the village church I usually attend within Gurgaon's new developments. Though far from the carnage in Orissa, the poignant, electrifying and gripping service this Sunday was a penitential prayer service, to pray for Orissa - its victims and its perpetrators.
On Christmas Eve 2007, while Christians in Orissa were preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus, gangs of fanatical elements in Kandhamal district, in a series of pre-planned and well organised assaults, attacked churches and Christian institutions, damaging them, desecrating statues and Bibles, and even burning houses in Christian bastis (settlements).
The atrocities continued for a month, and left 107 churches destroyed in arson, at least six people dead and thousands homeless. Though instances of violence were spread across the state, the bulk of it was concentrated in Kandhamal district. The district has a population of 600,000 people, of whom almost 200,000 are Christians. Practically all tribal, very poor and exploited.
By February although the brutality seemingly subsided, the persecution never stopped. Fanatical elements kept up pressure on Christians to renounce their faith and convert to Hinduism. Christians were taunted at work, boycotted socially, women were harassed, children caught and shaved bald.
In the forefront of the movement to force Christians to abandon Christianity was Lakshmananda Saraswati, a vice-president of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). Though a sadhu, he was known to be deeply involved in politics. On the night of Aug 23, a band of 20 to 30 masked men, armed with sophisticated weapons, including AK-47 rifles, attacked Saraswati's ashram and shot him and four of his associates dead.
The operation was typical of the Maoists - with the People's Liberation Guerilla Army, a Maoist Communist outfit, even claiming credit for the killings, as Saraswati, they said, had been mixing politics and religion for too long.
Despite differences the Christians had with him, the church and the All India Christian Council immediately condemned the killing of Saraswati and appealed to the police to arrest the killers, since the church is always against violence.
But the fundamentalists found in this an opportunity to make Christians the scapegoats, knowing full well that Christians were incapable of the killings using such sophisticated weapons. They publicly rejected the fact that Maoists had killed Saraswati and instead began a violent persecution of Christians in revenge and retaliation.
For the last week and more there has been a dance of death and destruction in Orissa. At least 14 Christians were killed in different instances, an orphanage was destroyed and a woman helper, possibly a nun, burnt to death. Many priests beaten, one burnt. Thomas Pandippally, a CMI priest brutally murdered. Nuns raped and children tonsured. Even the Archbishop's house was attacked, dozens of churches and prayer halls were burnt, sacred statues broken, Bibles torn and burnt, tabernacles desecrated, and saffron flags hoisted on churches and crosses.
The violence has spread to many districts of Orissa. Not satisfied with destroying churches and convents, even Christian schools and hospitals are attacked. There is a systematic attempt to destroy the livelihoods of Christians. Hundreds of little shops and small businesses owned by Christians have been targeted, and Christian houses broken. Thousands of Christians including priests and nuns have been forced to abandon their houses and flee to jungles, to live in fear, braving rain and poisonous insects.
In a state with a history of repeated communal violence and persecution of Christians, the police are doing little to protect the lives and properties of Christians, saying the rural roads have been blocked by trees. Christians are being denied their fundamental right to life, livelihood and property.
Not all victims are Christians. Hindus who work in Christian institutions or who live in Christian bastis and those friendly with Christians too are targeted. The attempt is to polarise society on communal lines and drive a wedge between communities.
To mark their solidarity with the Orissa Christians and as a protest against all acts of communal violence and brutal murders of priests and nuns of Orissa, the Delhi Christians sat on a 48-hour dharna in front of the Sacred Heart Cathedral on Aug 27. And on Aug 29, all Christians with teaching and non-teaching staff from all Christian schools, institutions and organisations in Delhi gathered in front of Orissa Bhavan for a protest demonstration - even as Christians schools and institutions all over the country remained closed for the day.
While sit-ins and demonstrations are important, the strongest and most trustworthy weapon of a Christian is prayer. And so the prayers at all Christian worship places like the one I witnessed in Gurgaon this Sunday, not only for the victims of Orissa carnage but also for their perpetrators. "Father forgive them - for they know not what they are doing!"