Vatican puts 35 Catholic ‘martyrs of Kandhamal’ in India on road to sainthood — By: Catholic News Agency

Photos of martyred Christians at a public event in Bhubaneswar in 2010. / Credit: Anto Akkara

Bangalore, India, Oct 26, 2023 / 13:05 pm (CNA).

The Church in India has welcomed the news that the Vatican will initiate the beatification process for the 35 Catholic martyrs of Kandhamal who were killed in the 2008 Christian persecution in the remote jungle district of the eastern Odisha state.

On Oct. 25, the Catholic Church in India made public the Oct. 18 “nihil obstat” from the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints “to initiate the process of beatification for the Servant of God Kantheswar Digal and companions, martyrs of Kandhamal,” communicated by Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli, apostolic nuncio to India.

“We are happy and thrilled with the communication. It is historic to have 35 of our martyrs on the path to Vatican recognition,” Archbishop John Barwa of the Archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar, which covers Kandhamal, told CNA on Oct. 26.

“Now the archdiocesan council will meet to decide the date and plans for officially initiating the process. Since it is a large group of nearly three dozen we need to plan out everything meticulously,” Barwa pointed out.

Kandhamal district, 150-250 miles southwest of the Odisha capital, Bhubaneswar, witnessed the worst anti-Christian violence in modern times beginning in August 2008 following the mysterious murder of Hindu nationalist monk Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati in his hermitage in Kandhamal.

The murder was quickly declared a “Christian conspiracy” by groups of Hindu nationalists and the body of the slain Hindu leader was taken across Kandhamal in a funeral procession for two days as calls for revenge on Christians were made.

Hindu nationalist outfits banned Christianity in Kandhamal and Christians were ordered to march into Hindu temples to recant their faith in Christ. Valiant Christians who defied the order were burned alive, buried alive, and chopped into pieces. Nearly 100 Christians were killed, and over 300 churches and 6,000 houses were plundered in unabated violence that rendered 56,000 people homeless.

“I visited the houses of each one of them scattered in jungle villages and prepared the list of 105 martyrs,” Father Purushottam Nayak, who put together the dossier of the martyrs beginning in 2018, told CNA from his base at Raikia Church, the largest parish in Kandhamal. 

“Among them there were only 36 Catholics, and the Vatican dicastery has approved the beatification process for 35 of them. Among them, 14 were killed on the spot while others died of injuries.”

“We are very happy that the Vatican has approved the findings. The families here [are] all thrilled with the news,” Nayak pointed out.

Father Stephen Alathara, deputy secretary general of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of India (CCBI), which is made up of 133 Latin-rite dioceses in India, told CNA that the CCBI plenary in January approved the list of martyrs submitted by the archdiocese and forwarded it to the Vatican Dicastery for the Causes of Saints.

“Now the approval has come from the Vatican. It is a historic development. The martyrdom of poor Christians in the Kandhamal jungles has turned it into the holy land of India,” Alathara told CNA from CCBI’s office in Bangalore.

A photo of Kantheswar Digal, one of the 35 “martyrs of Kandahamal,” hangs in his son’s home in India. Credit: Anto Akkara

The Vatican dicastery’s nihil obstat mentions only one name: “Kantheswar Digal,” among the 35 Catholic martyrs for his outstanding witness.

Digal, a catechist of Shankarakole, refused to attend a “reconversion gathering” in which Christians were forced to burn Bibles a week before the Hindu swami’s murder. 

When Digal heard of the Swami’s murder, he sensed trouble and tried to flee to Bhubaneswar, where his wife and son Rajendra lived in a slum. Local adversaries called on others to block the road by cutting down trees, and he was pulled off the bus. On the evening of Aug. 26, Kantheswar was killed along with a Christian couple, Meghnath Digal and his wife, Priatama, a nurse who was also gang-raped.

Another martyr on the list is Father Bernard Digal (no known relation to Kantheswar Digal), who was the procurator of the Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Archdiocese and had traveled to Kandhamal to review the construction of a new church. 

The violence that engulfed Kandhamal following the swami’s murder started when Father Digal had stopped for the night, Aug. 23, with an elderly priest.

After the church was attacked and his van burned, Father Digal’s efforts to find a motorbike to get the elderly priest out of Kandhamal landed him in the hands of assailants.

His ordeal and death two months later from a brain clot is told in the documentary “Martyrs of Kandhamal.”

The late Father Bernard Digal breaks down when Archbishop Raphael Cheeanth, also now deceased, visited him in a Mumbai hospital in early September 2008. Credit: Anto Akkara


The political conspiracy behind the orchestrated anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal has been documented in Anto Akkara’s book “Who Killed Swami Lakshamananda? and in the documentary “Innocents Imprisoned.The martyrdoms of Kantheswar Digal and companions can be found in Akkara’s book “Early Christians of 21st Century.”

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