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article imageOp-Ed: Should we not have Indian Christian Martyrs’ Day?

By Armstrong Vaz     Nov 30, 2008 in World
Portuguese first conquered Goa in 1510. Five cathloic priests of European descent were bestowed the honour of being Martyrs of Cuncolim, but not the five laymen who were killed along with them while induling in forceful conversion - was it racial.
Should we not have Indian Christian Martyrs’ Day, questions Father Anand Mttungal, an Indian catholic priest, in one of his news article which has been circulated on the net. Certainly, India and its church need to decorate its several heroes’s who have laid the life severing the vineyard of Christianity. The history of religious prosecution traces its roots to many centuries in India.
Christianity first made its roots in India through one of Jesus twelve disciplines –Thomas -in the southern state of Kerala somewhere in 52 AD.
Several centuries later, the Portuguese first conquered Goa in 1510 and went about destroying Hindu temples and indulging in forceful conversion to Christianity. In their pursuit to spread the religion, five catholic priests along with five laymen had to die at the hands of the revolting people from Cuncolim village in south Goa.
An uprising against the colonial Portuguese rulers launched by a small village, some 48 kilometres from the state capital of Panjim in 1583 was the first uprising that the Portuguese had to face in Goa apart from the organised armies and rulers who fought different wars with them over a period of time.
Although the five priests had been bestowed the honour of being Martyrs of Cuncolim, no such honour was bestowed on the five laymen accompanying the priests on the Cuncolim mission. Local residents feel they were kept out because of the racial prejudice.
The Portuguese deliberately kept out the five laymen out of the honour, one of the several ploys employed by the colonial rulers to give the local their dues when it matter.
Accounts by historians clearly show that for many years the Catholic church in Goa during the colonial rule kept out the Goans from serving as priests and in later years that honour was bestowed on only the boys from the high caste, although, Christianity does not believe in caste-system. The traces of the Hindu caste system are still prevalent in the present day in Goa.
“The early Church made distinction between martyrs and confessors. The title martyr was only attributed to those who had suffered the extreme penalty to the point of death. The death too which exclusively proclaims and saves the faith in Christ. This also echoed the words of Our Lord,(from the Bible, the holy book of Christians) ‘ there is no greater love than offering one’s life for the master.’ Whereas the title of ‘confessor was given to Christians who had shown their willingness to die for their belief, by bravely enduring imprisonment or torture, but were not put to death.’ We have both cases in Orissa, “says Father Mttungal.
He was referring to the several priests and nuns owing allegiance to Christian faith who have suffered humiliation, torture and death at the hands of the Hindu fanatics for the last several months, in different parts of India.
Un winding oneself formthe present and taking a trip tothepast tkes one to the villagers of Cuncolim. A village comprised mostly of Khastriyas (a warrior caste) who rendered services for different armies of different rulers, fought the war over forceful conversions and the destruction and defiling of their temples and places of worship.
The revolt took shape as a popular rebellion against invading Portuguese who came to the village accompanied by Jesuits, an order of Roman Catholic priests, and destroyed temples and defiled Hindu religious places.
The villagers retaliated by organising themselves. Five Jesuits lost their lives along with five laymen.
The five priests have since being canonised by the Roman Catholic Church as martyrs, but the laymen have not received such treatment. (See and for more information.)
The murdered priests were canonised because their bodies, despite being left in the well for a few days, did not emit any foul smell. Rather, they emitted “special aromas,” which helped in their canonisation process.
A “martyrs’ chapel” was erected, dedicated to the priests and layman killed in 1583. Another chapel, some 500 metres away, which is dedicated to St Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa, was the site where the bodies of the murdered priests were dumped in a well.
The well still stands today inside the chapel and is opened for people to view once a year during the feast of St Xavier, celebrated in the first week of December.
The Cuncolim villagers had to face the fury of the Portuguese for having killed the five priests and five laymen. The Portuguese destroyed orchards in the village and unleashed many atrocities on the local population. More trouble was in store for them.
The village chieftains were invited for talks at a fort in the neighboring village of Assolna, where the church of Assolna stands today. All but one was executed. The one who survived did so by escaping through a toilet hole to swim across the “River Sal” and fleeing to the neighboring Karwar district, which now forms part of the southern state of Karnataka.
As part of the memory of the murdered village chieftains, Cuncolim, as recently as five years ago erected a “chieftains’ memorial” thanks to the initiative of Vermissio Coutinho, who took the lead in the building of the memorial. The chieftains’ memorial stands close to the martyrs’ chapel.
The subsequent execution of the chieftains - cold-blooded murder - did not diminish the fighting and valorous qualities of the villagers. After the Khastriyas of Cuncolim failed to match the superior armed forces of the colonial rulers, who destroyed their orchards and unleashed other atrocities, the villagers continued the struggle through a non-cooperation movement of not paying taxes to the Portuguese.
Centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi would launch a similar movement of not paying taxes to British rulers.
The villages of Cuncolim, Velim, Assolna, Ambleim and Veroda refused to pay taxes on the produce generated from their fields and orchards. As a result, their lands were confiscated and entrusted to the Condado of the Marquis of Fronteira.
The villagers waged a strong struggle but it was through the efforts of the visionary Dr Rogociano Rebello, a general medical practitioner who studied law, that they got their land back. He took their case from the Goa law courts established by the Portuguese to the highest court in Portugal. Finally, it bore fruit.
A truce has been struck but the effect of opposing Portuguese rule has had long-lasting effects, even to this day.
The forceful conversion of the villagers forced those of Cuncolim to move their places of worship to different places. One of the temples of the goddess Shri Shantadurga Cuncolikarian was moved to the neighboring village of Fatorpa some seven kilometres away.
The villagers rejoice once a year when the same goddess is brought in a ceremonial procession from Fatorpa to Cuncolim. The 12 colourful umbrellas accompanying the deity represent the 12 vangodds (clans) of the village.
Residents from various part of Goa will come together during the festival to get the blessing of the deity.
The villagers, despite having to convert to Christianity, have confirmed their age-old Hindu customs and maintained their caste beliefs.
They also had a 12-vangodd system running the church’s affairs, until it was replaced recently by the church in some areas but some debeatable issues remain in the air between the church and the Gaunkars of the village.
The Khastriyas (warrior caste) who claim to be the original residents of the village, called Gaunkars (original inhabitants), have carried the Hindu caste system into the Roman Catholic Church and are demanding that they have a hold over the running of the affairs of the Cuncolim church, a view which has not been taken lightly by church authorities.
The Gaunkars claim that their forefathers built the Cuncolim church and that they have the right to conduct the religious festivals of the Cuncolim church, compared to non-Gaunkars who belong to the lower caste. No Catholic Brahmin families are found in the village of Cuncolim.
The dominant stance of the Khastriyas have seen many a struggle over the last 30 years and even led to church services being suspended for some months in the early 1980s.
Elshwere in India Religious plurality and tolerance has been the spirit of the nation . Yet instances of Christian martyrdom abound in India. Catholic priests, nuns and laypersons have being murdered in the process of setting up schools, social work centre’s or health services. We also have incidents where one is killed for preaching the word of God or chose to die to proclaim the faith in Christ.
After two thousand years the Church is returning to its beginnings where hundreds died to proclaim the message of Christ.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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