Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
January 19, 2009
Church helps Indians celebrate Christmas
BY ANTO AKKARA
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE
NUAGAM, India — Christians in refugee camps in Orissa state celebrated Christmas with help from the Catholic Church and unprecedented government security measures.
But in villages where Christians had returned after fleeing anti-Christian violence late in the summer, Christmas celebrations were muted.
In the refugee camps, government officials ordered the erection of temporary shelters in the seven camps for the celebration of Christmas services, while the homeless Christians decorated them with balloons and homemade Nativity scenes.
Some 8,000 Christians remain in the camps, after seven weeks of anti-Christian violence that began in late August and left at least 60 people dead and more than 50,000 displaced.
While most of the refugee camps had their Christmas services the evening of Dec. 24 or on Christmas morning, at the relief camp at Nuagam more than 2,000 Christians attended a four-hour midnight Mass.
Before the service started, hundreds of children in the camp came, singing and dancing, to the shelter, and when the solemn Mass ended, the youth presented a play.
“It was a wonderful experience. For some time at least, we could forget the tensions and sorrows of recent weeks,” Babunath Digal, a Protestant refugee at the camp, told Catholic News Service.
“We hope this Christmas will be a new beginning for us,” he told CNS as he cut chickens under the instruction of Missionaries of Charity nuns who were coordinating the special Christmas meals for the camp residents.
Two dozen members of the order had worked in the camps in the weeks before Christmas, coordinating preparations supported by the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese.
Some Christians who had returned to their villages came back to the camps for Christmas celebrations.
In the camp at Raikia, where 2,800 refugees remain, pastors of different denominations held joint services.
At the remote Mondasore refugee camp, more than 500 people attended a noon service at a shelter erected in front of the century-old Catholic church, which was badly damaged in a Sept. 1 attack.
Though local youths danced happily, the parish priest, Father Jugal Kishore Digal, was not as enthused.
FEAR PARALYSES PARISHIONERS
“My parish has 400 families, but many of them have not come here because of fear,” said Digal, who fled the parish Aug. 26 after the violence by Hindu groups, whose national leader was shot dead by Maoist rebels Aug. 23.
Digal, who returned Nov. 22 and converted the parish church compound into a refugee centre, said he was “saddened” that not a single adult Catholic male from the nearby village attended the Christmas service.
Hindu extremists had threatened them with dire consequences if they returned to the church after they were forced to reconvert to Hinduism.
At the Christmas Mass in Pobingia, where the church was destroyed in 2007 during Christmastime violence and almost all Christians were forced to reconvert to Hinduism during the August violence, government officials supported plans for a Christmas service.
When three dozen police and government officials and two dozen Catholics from outside the town arrived, they found only five Catholic families from the neighbourhood at the Christmas Mass, held on the veranda of the damaged school building.
“It seems our people are scared to come out to declare their faith in public,” said Father Ajay Kumar Singh, social services director of the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese, who celebrated the Mass in Pobingia.
The Kandhamal district administration deployed more than 10,000 security personnel for Christmas, in addition to about 200,000 state forces stationed around the refugee camps, churches and Christian villages.
Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Bhubaneswar said he appreciated the government’s efforts but added, “They should show the same determination so that our people can go back to their villages.”
In the village of Gurpakia, many Christian families were on the verge of starvation.
“We have nothing to celebrate today and no money to buy anything,” said the Rev. Pitabash Digal, a Pentecostal pastor.
Outside the Pentecostal church, women cooked rice for the Christmas meal. Almost all of the 90 Christian houses were burned or damaged in the anti-Christian violence, and the government stopped free food to the villagers after the relief camp in the village was closed in mid-November.