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He cycled to save mankind

- Cardinal prays for priest who paid for peace with life

Half a century ago, a 42-year-old humanitarian gave up his life trying to make rioters in Simdega see reason. He failed then, but his martyrdom impinged itself on the community’s conscience.

On Sunday, around 180km from Ranchi, thousands led by Cardinal Telesphore P. Toppo, paid rich tributes to Father Herman Rasschaert who was killed by armed mobs on March 24, 1964, in Kutungia parish, which fell then under Simdega subdivision, Ranchi.

In early 1964, communal riots had broken out across the country. Roman Catholic priest and Kutungia parish head Father Rasschaert was pained to see Hindus and Muslims of nearby villages, whom he loved dearly, turn hostile towards each other.

On March 24, 1964, when communal violence boiled over in Gerda village, Kutungia, the missionary cycled 12km from his church to dissuade warring groups from harming one another. He was killed in the process.

“He lived and died for people of all communities, not just the Christians,” Cardinal Toppo told the gathering on Sunday.

“Fifty years have passed since Father Rasschaert’s martyrdom. He could have secured himself within the four walls of the church. Yet he chose to step out in a desperate bid to spread the message of peace and love. We continue to derive strength from his martyrdom in our fight for peace, justice and communal harmony,” Toppo said.

Born in The Netherlands in a family of Belgian immigrants on September 13, 1922, Herman Rasschaert joined the Society of Jesus in 1941 and arrived in India in November 1947.

From 1949 to 1950, he headed St John’s School, Ranchi. From 1951 to 1954, he studied theology at St Mary’s College, Kurseong. He was ordained a priest on November 21, 1953.

Father Rasschaert was transferred to south Bihar — Jharkhand would be formed five decades later — where he spent the rest of his life. A widely respected man, he helped everyone regardless of caste or creed. Legend goes that as a priest in Karra in the late 1950s, he once cycled a wounded man for 40km to a Ranchi hospital.

In 1960, when he was made the parish priest in Kutungia, everything was peaceful. But communal tension reared its ugly head from January 1964, when thousands of refugees from the then East Pakistan — now Bangladesh — came to India. Their tales of horror and deaths inflamed riots in Jamshedpur, Ranchi, Rourkela and other places.

Half a century later, the bravery of the humble Father Rasschaert, who pedalled for peace without caring for the consequences, stays a symbol of peace and amity.

“His goodness is so inspiring. I have not been keeping good health for some time. But, I chose to ignore my health to be with the people of Kutungia today (Sunday) to stress on the need to preserve peace and goodwill,” the Cardinal told The Telegraph.

He stressed the Roman Catholic Church in India would intensify inter-religious dialogue.

“From Mughal emperor Akbar to Swami Vivekananda, India has a cherished history of promoting peace and amity among through dialogue and encouraging people of one faith to study the tenets of others. The world has many things to learn from India,” the Cardinal said, adding the Sadbhavna Manch, comprising inter-faith intellectuals, was a successful experiment in Ranchi.