India: Archbishop who championed persecuted Christians has died

A retired Archbishop who bore the brunt of one of the worst Christian persecutions India has ever witnessed in modern times, died on Sunday, August 14.

Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneshwar, who led the archdiocese for over 30 years, died of colon cancer at the Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai at the age of 82.

Cardinal Oswald Gracias, the Archbishop of Mumbai and President of the Latin Bishops in India (CCBI) said: "The Church in India mourns the death of Archbishop Raphael Cheenath ... who led the archdiocese of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in the most traumatic period for the Catholic Church, in India."

The Divine Word archbishop campaigned ceaselessly for the victims and survivors of the 2008 anti-Christian carnage in Odisha's state's Kandhamal District. His efforts let to the Supreme Court of India upholding on August 2 his Public Interest Litigation for enhanced ‎relief to the victims. Cardinal Gracias also noted that Archbishop Cheenath had received death threats and as a result was not able to live his final years in retirement carrying out a public life in his Archdiocese.

Prominent Catholic lay leader John Dayal also mourned the late archbishop saying he "provided leadership to a people who were shattered." Dayal, a former president of the All India Catholic Union , who worked with Archbishop Cheenath "very closely for over 16 years," wrote in a post on his Facebook, "I mourn a friend, and a leader of rare stature."

Father Ajay Kumar Singh, a social worker and rights activist from Kandhamal, said the prelate had made the difference in the lives of thousands of people of Odisha. "He stoutly fought for justice. When the Odisha government refused NGOs and civil society to distribute relief among Kandhamal victims and survivors, he took the matters to the Supreme Court and got the state government order cancelled," said the priest who heads the Odisha Forum for Social Action of Odisha's regional bishops council. "I salute the man, who guided me for the past 15 years," Fr Singh said adding the prelate fought for justice until the end.

Archbishop Cheenath was born on December 29, 1934, in Kerala, southern India. He was ordained a priest on September 21, 1963. He was appointed bishop of Sambalpur in Odisha (then Orissa) in 1974. He was appointed archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar on July 1, 1985, a post he held until retirement on February 11, 2011.

Read a further tribute on Crux here:

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