Catholic priests brutally attacked in Odisha church robbery

Burnt Bibles from the attacks on Christians in Manipur. (Photo: Open Doors)

Two Catholic priests were seriously injured in a violent robbery at a church in Odisha, sparking concerns over the safety of the Christian minority community in the region.

The incident occurred in the early hours of Saturday, June 15, at the Jhorabahal parish in Sundergarh district's Rourkela city. A group of around 15 masked assailants, armed with iron rods, crowbars and hockey sticks, barged into the presbytery (priests' residence) around 2:30 am.

Father Nerial Bilung, 72, the parish priest, and Father Alois Xalxo, 52, the assistant priest, were brutally assaulted by the intruders. The attackers broke through the iron grills, snatched the priests' mobile phones, handcuffed them and gagged their mouths with cloth. They then proceeded to beat the priests severely, threatening to kill them with knives held at their throats.

"The miscreants attacked the priests brutally with iron rods, crowbars, hockey sticks and other lethal weapons and dragged them to the rooms, handcuffing them and tying up their mouths with clothes and demanding whatever money they had," stated a release from the Catholic Diocese of Rourkela.

After the vicious assault, the robbers ransacked the premises for nearly an hour, stealing over Rs 10 lakh (approximately $11,958) in cash, including funds collected from students of two schools located on the church premises. They also looted musical instruments, financial records and other valuables.

"The miscreants were all wearing facemasks, hand gloves and heavy shoes, and spoke in Bihari sadri," said Father Bilung, who lost consciousness due to profuse bleeding from the injuries.

The priests were left helpless until Father Xalxo managed to untie his hands and sought help from people on the campus around 4:30 am. Both the clergymen are currently receiving treatment at a local hospital and are said to be in a stable condition.

"In the last two years this is the fifth attack in that region of the state," said Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a national award-winning human rights activist and priest. He recollected to Christian Today that a few years back when Rourkela had incidents of vandalisation in churches and of Christian statues, he conducted a fact finding in that area. "The police could not catch anyone then and they have not caught anyone in the last two years. There may be a communal element present in the attacks, but it is very difficult to say," he concluded.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India (CBCI) has condemned the attack and called for an appropriate inquiry and action against the perpetrators. They have also urged the federal government to ensure the security of the Christian minority community across the country.

Odisha, a state with a sizable Hindu majority, has witnessed instances of anti-Christian violence in the past, including the deadly Kandhamal anti-Christian violence in 2008 that claimed over 100 lives and saw hundreds of churches and Christian homes attacked and destroyed.

While the local police have dismissed any communal angle to the attack, Bishop Kishore Kumar Kujur of Rourkela expressed doubts, stating that the nature of the assault raises suspicions beyond a mere robbery. The diocese has filed a police complaint, and investigations are ongoing to apprehend the culprits.