Evangelisation will be the response in one of the worst-hit areas for Christian persecution in India.
This is according to Odisha’s bishop after Pope Francis created the new diocese in the Indian state which saw hundreds of Christians killed and injured and many more churches destroyed in the early 21st century.
Bishop Aplinar Senapati was given responsibility for this violent area in eastern India last month when the pontiff created the diocese of Rayagada. He said that evangelisation will be his priority.
“Evangelisation is deepening the faith of Christians, transmitting the good news of Jesus through preaching and through our apostolates, [meaning] schools, health services etc,” he said.
The violence originated in late 2007 when local Hindus blamed Christians for the assassination of a Hindu holy man named Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati. It was later found that Maoist militia killed Saraswati, not Christians, but that did not prevent militant Hindu radicals stirring up violence against Christians again in the summer of 2008.
More than 100 people were killed, thousands injured, and around 6,000 homes and 300 churches destroyed. About 50,000 Christians fled to nearby forest where many more died of hunger, thirst and snakebite.
Bishop Senapati knows the area well and was a priest during the violence.
“I visited many relief camps, and the pathetic conditions of our people caused me intense anguish and suffering,” he said. “So many people lost their lives. It was a deep wound for me.”
The vast majority of Christians in Odisha are Dalits, the Hindu caste meaning “untouchables”. As such they are among the lowest members of society. But Senapati said he would not take that into account.
“I will serve all people, Tribals, Dalits, all my people, without discrimination,” he said. “We are all children of God.”