ORISSA STATE, India A group of criminals sits jam-packed in the filthy Indian holding cell. The smell of urine permeates the dank air.
Two bedraggled men in the corner stand out from the other detainees not because of their threadbare clothes or clean-cut features but because of their actions. Pabitra Kata hums a hymn while Niladri Kanhar prays.
Their alleged crime: "proselytizing."
Local authorities accuse the two of coercing a Hindu man into becoming a Christian. Neither denies the fact that they were sharing a Bible story, but the word "coercion" makes them shake their heads in disbelief.
Claiming Christianity in India's Orissa State means persecution and brutal beatings. Both men have the scars to prove it. Kata sports a hairless, jagged line above his right ear where his head was caved in from a beating; Kanhar has an eight-inch scar along his right side.
Kata glances at his friend deep in prayer and remembers his own fervent prayer that started their journey.
Six years ago
"Lord, give me just one family to build Your church on," Kata begged God in 2005. "We need a family that can stand strong like a rock like Your disciple Peter."
The Holy Spirit answered the pastor by leading him up a mountain path and through the forest. When he stopped at the edge of a well-known terrorist village, Kata couldn't believe it. This para-military group often killed or terrorized Christians in a nationalist effort to keep India strictly Hindu. To make matters worse, one of the most feared leaders who lived in this village Kanhar was responsible for destroying churches and the beating, rape and even murder of Christians.
"Surely, God isn't this crazy!" Kata thought. He had made a wrong turn in the forest, the pastor thought as he walked back home, pleading the entire way for just one family.
Inside the village, Kanhar sat in his house, a broken and angry man. All five of his children were sick. Despite his powerful position as the local terrorist leader, there was nothing he could do to make things better for his family. He already had tried everything medical doctors, offerings at the Hindu temple and witchcraft.
At one point, Kanhar sensed that one of the gods to which he had made sacrifices told him someone in his house would die.
"I did everything you asked. We have become beggars and still we are suffering," Kanhar screamed. "If you are not able to save us, go away and send us someone who can!"
A dream and a prayer
One night, Kata was startled awake by a vivid dream. It was as if someone called out to him. The pastor replayed the fragmented images in his head: a mountain path, a village and a falling tree. The tree pointed to the terrorist leader's mud-packed home that emanated mourning and sorrow.
Kata dressed and told his wife that a family needed prayer. Then he scurried up the mountain path to the most feared home in the region.
The pastor arrived too late. Kanhar's eldest daughter died during the night. The terrorist leader's wife met Kata at the door, explaining that her husband took the body to the hospital for a death certificate. She advised the pastor to leave before her husband returned. Kanhar hated Christians and she didn't want to see anyone else die today, feeling enough pain inside her for a lifetime.
The pastor pleaded with the mother not to give up hope. They just needed to pray. She didn't know how, so he urged her to repeat "in Jesus' name" throughout the night. He promised to return the next day at 10 a.m.
Miracles and faith
That morning, Kanhar and his daughter walked hand-in-hand up the path to their home. The pastor wasn't surprised, but no one else could believe their eyes. Although doctors had pronounced her dead, she now ran to hug her mother.
Kanhar eyed the strange man standing at their door. Kata smiled, extended his hand and said, "I'm your new friend, Pabitra Kata."
Kanhar's face, however, showed his intent to kill the pastor as part of the terrorist group's quest to wipe out Christianity. Kanhar's eyes wandered around the yard, searching for anything he could use as a weapon.
"We hate Jesus here," the terrorist stated angrily, moving toward the Kata.
Kanhar's wife stepped between them, saying that the pastor's prayers had been pivotal in bringing their daughter back to life. She boldly told her husband that she now believed in Jesus and prayed in His name.
The terrorist reluctantly listened to his wife's story and halfheartedly agreed to believe. After all, what choice did he have? The pastor's God healed their daughter when nothing else worked.
By 5 p.m., though, Kanhar truly gave his heart to God as his four other bed-ridden children also became well and got up to play.
"My family is healthy. This is a miracle of God," the terrorist announced. "From this day, our household will worship only Him."
A church is birthed
Each night, Kata snuck through the forest to the terrorist village. He ducked past guards and slipped in Kanhar's back door. The family of seven sat waiting to learn new Bible stories and to pray.
Kanhar soaked up every lesson like a sponge. He had never felt so much peace in his life. Even though his neighbors were angry with him for bringing the shame of Christianity to the village, he openly shared his newfound faith.
Gradually, more people attended the nightly meetings. The para-military group tried to block this multiplication by fining anyone who talked to Kanhar 10,000 rupees ($200) more money than most made in a year.
One night as Kata left the prayer meeting, a group of men grabbed and bound him. They dragged him along the paved road, finally stopping in a clearing where 30 others with clubs and sticks in hand waited to join the attack.
The men blamed the pastor for "turning" their former leader. They beat and kicked the crumpled man. They broke his ribs and bashed in one side of his head.
The pastor's screams pierced the silent night, yet no one came to his rescue.
"God, like your servant Stephen, I am ready," Kata prayed through the pain. When heaven did not open, the pastor changed his prayer. "Help me stand firm. Use me to build Your church here!"
Police picked Kata's battered body up off the road and took him to the station. They threatened to charge him with "converting Hindus." But in the end, they told him not to return to Kanhar's village or, next time, he surely would die.
Despite the warning, the pastor continued to meet with the former terrorist leader for Bible study. During one of their prayer times, the pastor looked at Kanhar through still-swollen eyes and predicted, "You will have to suffer worse than me for your faith."
Kanhar couldn't believe what he heard. The village had forced his family to leave and filed charges against him for "conversions" after another entire family proclaimed Christianity. The former terrorist couldn't find work to feed his family. His brothers disowned him. Even his children were forced to leave school. How could it get worse?
It didn't take long for the pastor's words to come true. One day as Kanhar worked in the field, a group of about 50 men carrying clubs and machetes chased him down. They bound their former leader and forced him to kneel.
Kanhar prayed as the men began throwing large stones at him. He lifted a prayer of thanksgiving when, somehow, none of the stones struck him. The enraged men then rushed at him, swinging their clubs and machetes. Blood pooled quickly around him.
"Stop!" a man yelled. "He deserves a slow death for what he has brought to our village."
With that, they divided into two teams taking turns kicking and clubbing. At one point, the men urinated on Kanhar, causing his open wounds to sting and burn. They broke his leg and placed a poisonous plant on his eyes to increase the pain.
"If you don't come back to Hinduism, you will die," a man told him.
"Even if you kill me or my children, I will remain a Christian until my last breath," Kanhar replied. "I will stand firm in the truth of Jesus Christ."
Back at the jail
Holding to that declaration has not been easy for the former terrorist as well as the pastor. Persecution is simply the cost of sharing the Gospel. Beatings, unemployment and threats of jail time are to be expected.
The "good days" come when someone professes Jesus as Lord and Savior. Those days make their perseverance possible.
Kata sees the bailiff approaching and stands up. It's time for their case. The judge glances through the papers then sternly warns them about "proselytizing." He surprises everyone, however, by dropping all charges against the two Christians.
The two friends thank God and rush out the door. There's no time for celebration the pastor and the terrorist-turned-believer are late for evangelism training at the church.