25th anniversary of Graham Staines murder to be observed in Odisha on January 22

Residents of Manoharpur, a quaint village in Mayurbhanj district, remember the traumatic night when the missionary and his two young sons were burnt alive

January 20, 2024 07:36 pm | Updated 09:39 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

Graham and Gladys Staines are seen with their children Philip, Esther and Timothy in this file picture.

Graham and Gladys Staines are seen with their children Philip, Esther and Timothy in this file picture. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Residents of Manoharpur, a remote village in Keonjhar district of Odisha, will on Monday observe the 25th death anniversary of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two minor sons, whose murder had then shaken the conscience of humanity.

On the wintry night of January 22, 1999, Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons, who participated in a jungle camp in Manoharpur, were charred to death. This annual jungle camp served as a social platform for Christians in the region to engage in discussions about their beliefs. At the time of the horrific incident, they were sleeping inside a van. Right-wing groups accused Staines of engaging in forced conversions.

‘Etched in memory’

“The period — 25 years — is typically considered a human generation. It means a generation has passed in Manoharpur that bears the ignominy of being the place of a ghastly murder. The incident is never going to get erased from our collective memory. However, January 22 is also a day of contemplation for us. We resolve to take forward the philosophy of humanity that Staines practised during his lifetime,” said Johan Murmu, 40, who was a school student 25 years ago.

Manoharpur, located 200 km from Odisha’s capital Bhubaneswar, houses 260-odd families with 45 families having embraced Christianity. The murder had taken place about 10 minutes after midnight on January 23. Since it was night-time, Manoharpur observes the death anniversary on January 22 every year while the remembrance service is offered on January 23 in Baripada, the district headquarters town of Mayurbhanj district where the missionary used to serve leprosy patients.

People from 20 nearby villages come to Manoharpur Church to pray and remember Staines. Even guests from bigger cities pay a visit and this year, villagers are expecting a large gathering.

“As the saying goes, life is temporary and death is inevitable. However, the untimely demise should not have befallen Graham Staines and his minor sons, Philip and Timothy, the way it had. It struck them with unexpected cruelty,” said Surendra Murmu, 30, who has grown up hearing accounts of the brutal murder.

Established in Baripada in 1892 by the Evangelical Missionary Society of Mayurbhanj, the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home (MLH) has played a crucial role in providing care. In 1965, at the age of 24, Staines joined MLH and settled in Baripada, where thousands from Odisha, West Bengal, and Jharkhand have received treatment. Recovered patients have found rehabilitation at Rajabasa, located approximately 11 km from the town. Post-recovery, many have successfully reintegrated into mainstream life, achieving independence through various livelihood programmes at Rajabasa. Following Staines’ tragic murder, his wife Gladys Staines assumed leadership of MLH and established the 15-bedded Graham Staines Memorial Hospital in 2005.

“I still vividly remember as to how Staines used to roam around in Baripada town commanding respect from people for his selfless service. He and his family members had completely assimilated with locals. His sacrifice has not been let wasted. His friends and admirers have carried forward his deeds through medical service and rehabilitation of leprosy patients,” said Subhankar Ghosh, who is associated with MLH.

Pradip Das, a Christian community leader, said no violence has been reported in Mayurbhanj district where Staines worked for a large part of his life. “It is because of the quick response of State police to any small religious dispute that the confrontations have been avoided. We are provided security during any religious congregation,” he said.

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