Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Christmas with Mother Teresa: A True Story Never Before Told

A newly written book, Christmas with Mother Teresa tells an amazing true story that has never before been told. It is the story of how Catholic Relief Services and the Missionaries of Charity joined forces to being emergency humanitarian aid to millions of Bengali refugees from East Pakistan who flooded eastern India in 1971. It’s a dramatic, action-packed tale of political repression, natural disaster, guerilla warfare, ethnic cleansing, massive population shifts, Cold War politics, modern war, and the birth of a new nation. More than that, however, it’s a powerful drama of great human tragedy and suffering illuminated and uplifted by the gentle touch of Christ’s redeeming love.

Well-researched, compelling, and inspiring, Christmas with Mother Teresa gives readers the historical and cultural background of the events it describes. It explains that the innocent Bengali people of East Pakistan were massacred and forced onto India’s doorstep in such great numbers in 1971 because their determination to be free conflicted with West Pakistani commercial interests.

As related in the book, the Hindu natives of East Bengal had lived as second-class citizens in the apartheid-style nation of East Pakistan for decades, ruled by Islamic West Pakistani foreigners with whom they had little in common. Late in 1970, facing continued repression and racism, government mismanagement of a terrible natural disaster, and persistent violations of their rights, the Bengalis started a guerrilla uprising against the corrupt Pakistani regime.

Pakistan was governed by a brutal military dictator named General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan, who was determined to crush the rebellion and restore full Pakistani control of East Bengal no matter what the cost. When mass arrests, torture, and random cold-blooded shootings of East Pakistani civilians failed to destroy the liberation movement, General Khan turned to mass murder. The Pakistani Army began ruthlessly massacring tens of thousands of innocent Bengali men, women and children and burning dozens of villages across its eastern colony.

This wholesale reign of terror precipitated a mass exodus of Bengalis from East Pakistan. Beginning in March of 1971 and continuing until December of that year, nearly ten million of them—mostly civilians, but with a few guerrillas mixed in—ran for their lives, pouring en masse across the Indian border, seeking refuge from their enemies in the nearest friendly country. A large number of them landed in the already densely populated and impoverished Indian state of West Bengal, whose capital was Calcutta. These millions of refugees arrived in India absolutely destitute, with nothing but the clothes on their backs, presenting their host nation with a humanitarian crisis of almost unimaginable proportions—and presenting Catholic Relief Services with one of the greatest relief challenges in the organization’s remarkable history.

Christmas with Mother Teresa tells how Catholic Relief Services (CRS)—the overseas charitable agency of the U.S. Catholic Church—brilliantly rose to the occasion, planning and executing a tremendous feat of emergency relief. From March to December of 1971, as the horrific Bengali genocide decimated East Pakistan, Cold War leaders played ruthless power games, and the threat of war hung over the Indian subcontinent, CRS staff and thousands of volunteers led by the Missionaries of Charity worked together around the clock building some two hundred refugee camps along the Indian border and supplying all the material needs of two million Bengali refugees: sanitation, medical services, food, water, clothing, soap, and shelter. In collaboration with CRS, the Missionaries of Charity also provided for the refugees’ critical spiritual and emotional needs of love, friendship, recreation, comfort, support, and encouragement.

Based on eyewitness testimony, Christmas with Mother Teresa tells how this extraordinary work of charity was organized and carried out under the principal direction of two individuals: the CRS Program Director for India and Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The climax of this profoundly moving and unforgettable true story is a totally unexpected and unique Christmas experience shared with the “saint of Calcutta”, the refugees, and a special visitor from the United States whose cause for sainthood is also underway.

The book will also relate in detail:

• How Catholic Relief Services helped Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity perform their daily works of mercy in Calcutta • How CRS and the Missionaries of Charity brought aid to desperate Bengalis after a crippling natural disaster struck East Pakistan in 1970 • How India and the world responded to the massive refugee crisis • The role played by Cold War superpowers in the conflict between India and Pakistan • How Mother Teresa’s example and leadership contributed to the success of the CRS refugee relief program • Why Mother Teresa became known as “a great symbol of peace” • How the Bengali genocide and refugee crisis were ultimately stopped • What happened to the refugees after the crisis • Everyday examples of Mother Teresa’s heroic virtues such as humility, charity, patience, abandonment to the Divine Will, and trust in Divine Providence as witnessed by the CRS Program Director • What the Program Director learned from Mother Teresa’s example of holiness

Why has this gem of a story remained buried for so many years? One reason is that the events took place in a relatively obscure developing country during polarized and chaotic times for the world in general. The Cold War was raging, and many nations fell into one of two camps, either pro-Communist (led by the Soviet Union) or anti-Communist (led by the United States). India, however, refused to take part in this conflict, so it was generally marginalized by the two Cold War superpowers who dominated the world stage. Also, despite their magnitude, the Bengali genocide and refugee crisis were overshadowed in the international media and in people’s minds by other, “bigger” events and issues such as the Vietnam War, radical social and cultural changes, environmental concerns, the U.S.-Soviet nuclear arms race, the Apollo moon landings, and the sweeping liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

Another reason why this novel-like tale has remained untold has to do with a disturbing and lesser-known aspect of the Cold War politics of the time. For political reasons, as the book candidly points out, in the early 1970s the U.S. government was allied with and even secretly arming the Pakistani military dictatorship responsible for the massacre of up to three million innocent Bengalis and the forced displacement of ten million others into India. The Nixon administration downplayed the ethnic cleansing and refugee crisis, thus keeping its shameful and illegal involvement in these humanitarian tragedies largely hidden from American public view. The horrible details of the Bengali genocide and the U.S. role in it were not fully revealed to the Western world until after the Cold War had ended, beginning in the late 1990s with the research of R. J. Rummel and other historians and continuing since 2002 with the declassification of relevant U.S. State Department documents.

A third reason why this account is generally unknown is that no one has written and published an in-depth account of it, firsthand or otherwise. Nearly all of the eyewitnesses to these events have passed away, taking their memories to their graves. Even Eileen Egan (1911-2001), the great contemporary journalist, biographer and co-worker of Mother Teresa and a prominent figure in Catholic Relief Services, only gives a thumbnail sketch of the enormous refugee crisis and relief effort or mentions them in passing in her published writings because she was not directly involved in them firsthand (cf. Such a Vision of the Street: Mother Teresa—The Spirit and the Work [New York: Doubleday, 1985], pp. 196-99, 204, 212; also cf. Catholic Relief Services: The Beginning Years [New York: Catholic Relief Services, 1988], pp. 292-93).

Indeed, this amazing story might have been lost for all time—except for the fact that at least one eyewitness to it is still alive today and willing to share it with others. Moreover, this eyewitness was not a casual bystander or passive victim of the historic events he witnessed, but rather a key figure who was intimately involved in them. As the CRS Program Director for India from 1969 to 1977, this man spent nine years working closely with Mother Teresa and was in charge of the tremendous relief effort for East Pakistani refugees. This humble and cheerful man, now retired and in his late seventies, is a good storyteller and a good friend of mine. Over the past few years, he has kindly granted me a series of private interviews in which he told the untold story; he also shared with me his personal photo collection of his unique Christmas with Mother Teresa (some of these photos will be included in the published book). I have written the narrative based on my interviews with him as well as on my own additional research, and the book is now being marketed to various Catholic publishers in the U.S. The identity of the CRS Program Director will be revealed in the published book.

Christmas with Mother Teresa will acquaint readers with a major unrecognized achievement in the history of Catholic Relief Services and will fill an important gap in the biographies of Mother Teresa published to date. Information about the book’s publisher, release date, availability, and pricing will be provided on my Twitter page at twitter.com/justinsoutar as well as here on my blog as it becomes available, so please stay tuned.

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