In the remote Kandhamal district of Odisha, a remarkable transformation has taken place over the past 15 years, turning a history of tragedy into a story of resilience and faith. The district, once synonymous with the worst organised persecution in the history of Christianity in India, has emerged as a symbol of unwavering faith and forgiveness.
Journalist Anto Akkara, who extensively covered the Kandhamal story through 35 visits, presents an inspiring narrative of Kandhamal's journey from despair to hope in his new work titled - Good News of Kandhamal, released on August 23 to mark the 15th anniversary of the 2008 bloodshed and persecution in the remote Kandhamal jungle district of Odisha.
Akkara shares his perspective on the transformation, stating, "What happened in Kandhamal in 2008 was indeed a catastrophe. But 15 years later, would you believe, the poor but valiant Christians have transformed this tragedy into a cause for Christians not to mourn… but to rejoice," he told Christian Today.
In August 2008, Kandhamal was plunged into chaos following the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati. Blaming Christians for the murder, extremists targeted the Christian community, giving them an ultimatum to renounce their faith. What followed was a wave of violence, with nearly 100 Christians losing their lives in gruesome ways, and thousands fleeing to the jungles to escape forced reconversion ceremonies. About 400 churches were destroyed, 6,500 Christian homes were set ablaze, and the district's landscape was marred by destruction. Additionally, over 40 women fell victim to rape and sexual assault, while the resulting violence disrupted the education of 12,000 children for a prolonged period.
Through this tumultuous period, the Christians of Kandhamal displayed unwavering faith and resilience.
The reaction of the Kandhamal Christians is in accordance to the Bible verses –
Love your enemies,
Do good to those who hate you,
Bless those who curse you,
Pray for those who mistreat you.
If someone slaps you on one cheek,
turn to them the other also.
There are three elements that stand-out in the documentary - the power of forgiveness, the triumph of love over hatred and it stands as a testament to the resilience of faith of these persecuted communities.
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of Kandhamal's story is the forgiveness displayed by the victims towards their tormentors. Akkara emphasised that "The forgiving response of Kandhamal Christians with their disarming smiles has floored the enemy and melted the hearts of the assailants who have apologised to them."
Individual stories within the larger narrative illustrate the transformation on a personal level. Akkara shares the experience of Hippolitus Nayak, who was attacked during the violence, receiving an unexpected apology from one of the perpetrators. He also recounts the story of Junos Digal, who had attacked Christian targets and later became a Christian himself, marvelling at the resilience and faith of those he had once tormented.
Akkara recollects that a church elder told him, “You say they have strong faith, but I feel many of them will go back when they suffer like this.” But Akkara responded to him with affirmation, “I told him - No… I can assure you they will not go back," emphasising that “no one could assess the depth of Kandhamal’s amazing witness without visiting the ground zero of the worst persecution in Indian history.”
Despite facing dire poverty and isolation, the Christians of Kandhamal chose to uphold their faith rather than succumb to despair. Akkara recalls his interactions with the community, "I went to Kandhamal with copies of ‘Shining Faith’ (book) to share with the valiant Christians. Keen to protect the identity of the witnesses, I shaded their faces and used anonymous names. But their response stunned me. Glancing through the pages, they were angry at me than being happy. 'Sir, what have you done? Why did you shade and hide our faces? We are not cowards. Show our faces. Even if they kill us, we are not worried’."
Besides Akkara's powerful investigative books and social media campaign for Truth & Justice that shed light on the incredible witness of Kandhamal Christians, he has filmed six documentaries - Heroic Witness from Kandhamal (Easter 2022), Rock-like Faith of Kandhamal (August 2022), Martyrs of Kandhamal (November 2022), Release of Kandhamal's & Innocents & Power of Prayer (December 2022), The Right Hand of God over Kandhamal (Easter 2023), and the present release last week being the sixth in the series.
"Kandhamal is no more a tragedy. The sorrow of 2008 has been turned into joy by the valiant Christians. Children who underwent nightmares of fleeing for life to jungles, living in refugee camps and slums, have not turned despondent Christians," said Akkara to Christian Today.
The journey of Kandhamal, from being a place of tragedy to becoming a vibrant vocation garden for different Christian denominations, exemplifies the saying, "The blood of martyrs is the seed of the church." As Akkara aptly puts it, "The valiant Christians of Kandhamal have indeed passed out in flying colours the litmus test of faith." The Christians of Kandhamal have shown the world that faith can overcome even the most brutal of persecutions, turning sorrow into joy and darkness into light.