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Telling Mary's Story: Orissa One Year Later

Carl Moeller | Open Doors USA President/CEO | Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Telling Mary's Story: Orissa One Year Later

August 19, 2009

I don't know Mary Nayak personally, but I feel a real connection with this young mother after reading her compelling story. Now she is my sister - my sister in Christ even though she lives thousands of miles away in India.

My thoughts come back to Mary this month because Sunday, August 23 marks the first anniversary of the outbreak of horrific violence against Christians in the state of Orissa. The religious attacks by Hindu extremists resulted in approximately 120 deaths, the destruction of at least 250 Christian churches and 300 villages and the displacement of 50,000 believers.

I would like to share with you a portion of Mary's story - a story of faith after she was left for dead by persecutors.

Prior to last August 23, she was living happily in Kandhamal, Orissa, with her husband, who is a pastor, and their two children. One Sunday after church, a mob of about 700 to 800 people rushed into their village shouting. They immediately attacked the Christians.

Mary's husband and the other church members who were with him at the church were forced to flee and take shelter in the jungles nearby. Before the Christians had a chance to help their families flee, a mob arrived at Mary's house. Mary and her children narrowly escaped to the jungle where she and the children reconnected with her husband. The family remained hidden in the jungle for three days without any food or shelter before they returned home.

A few days later, the women of the church came together to fast and pray about the recent persecution in their village. Soon after they began praying, about 25 people gathered and without any warning started throwing huge stones at the women. One stone hit Mary's back, knocking her for the ground where the mob kicked and beat her. They only stopped when they thought she was dead.

When Mary's husband learned of the attack, he immediately rushed to the scene and saw her lying on the road. He brought her home and went to seek medical help, but the mob caught up with him and forced him to flee in another direction. He eventually made it back home and found Mary conscious. They prayed together before leaving for another district for medical help. They left everything and departed from Kandhamal with only their clothes they were wearing and a small amount of money.

As they made their way to the doctor, they were surrounded by the chaos of Christian homes burning and people running back and forth. It was difficult to know who was a friend and who was not.  Mary could not walk so her children and husband had to carry her to the railway station so they could get to the village of Koraput.

Ultimately, the family decided to move to Jagadalpur in the state of Chhattisgarh state nearer to Orissa circumstances in Kandhamal failed to improve. In Jagadalpur, Open Doors met Mary's family. The first thing Open Doors co-workers did was to take Mary to a better hospital where she could get further treatment.

Today, Mary is still recuperating from her injuries and from shock. She will receive trauma counseling. Her family still lacks resources away from Kandhamal. Despite their circumstances, however, Mary is giving thanks to the Lord for surviving the violence.

Hundreds of Christians around Orissa have stories like Mary's. A year after the violence began, more than 4,000 Christians are living in refugee camps. Thousands more have not returned to their villages because they fear for their lives or fear the possibility of forced conversion to Hinduism. They still need physical, emotional and spiritual support.

You might ask: "Persecution in the largest democracy in the world? Doesn't India's constitution guarantee freedom of religion?"

The answer to the first question is a definite "yes."  India jumped from No. 30 to No. 22 in Open Doors' 2009 World Watch List of countries where Christians suffer the most severe persecution. It experienced a greater increase in ranking - eight spots - than any other country on the list.

The increased persecution is driven by rising anger from Hindu extremists as Christian conversions increase and the faith grows. Hindus charge that the conversions are forced on poor Indians by Christian missionaries, leading to the passage of anti-conversion laws in eight states in India, although only five states are currently implementing the law. The laws ostensibly prevents forced conversion, but are really designed to prevent Hindus from converting to Christianity.

The violence in Orissa and in other states comes at a time when many Indians feel that Hindu fundamentalism is on the rise. The extremists' goal is making India a Hindu nation, rather than a secular one.

Yes, India's constitution does guarantee freedom of religion. But in India as in many other countries, radical religious groups have set up their own set of rules and system of justice. According to Compass Direct News, a reign of terror continues in the area as the former Hindu rioters issue death threats to witnesses during trials. Of the more than 750 cases filed in various police stations in Kandhamal district and neighboring Gajapati district in Orissa, only one has resulted in a conviction of the persecutors. Some of the witnesses are running away to save their lives after receiving death threats.

The Indian government must take more steps to protect minority Christians. There are an estimated 25 million Christians in India who make up 2.3 percent of the population while Hindus make up 80.6 percent and Muslims 13.4.

There is only one way to describe what has happened in Orissa; it is not ethnic cleansing but religious cleansing. Churches are being replaced by new Hindu temples, and on the gutted remains of churches it is written "India is for Hindus."

But the Christians of Orissa will not renounce their faith. As the months pass and their tents begin to rot in the heat and the monsoon rain, it's important that we do not forget them.

On Sunday, India's church leaders will commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Orissa violence by sponsoring "Peace Day" which will include peace marches, fasting and prayer vigils.

Please join them in prayer for peace in India.   

Dr. Carl A. Moeller is President/CEO of Open Doors USA. Open Doors works in the world's most oppressive countries, strengthening Christians to stand strong in the face of persecution and equipping them to shine Christ's light in dark places.