India bestowed a prestigious civilian honor to Australian Gladys Staines, widow of missionary Graham Staines who was killed by a Hindu mob along with their two sons in 1999. The award, given yesterday for distinguished service to the nation, in any field, was one of two awards given by the Government of India to foreigners this year.
Staines, 54, said she was "absolutely overwhelmed and stunned by the news".
"I am feeling very humbled at the same time. It's a rare honor and a humbling experience, she told the Press Trust of India news agency.
Staines and her husband Graham had spent more than 30 years working with leprosy patients in Baripada district in the eastern state of Orissa.
In January 1999 Graham and his two sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, eight, were burnt to death outside a tribal village church in India's eastern Orissa state by a mob of Hindu fanatics who accused him of forcibly converting poor Hindus to Christianity.
Sources say the three, who were asleep in their jeep when the attack took place, tried to escape the flames but the mobled by principal suspect Ravindra Pal, alias Dara Singh, and armed with axesprevented them.
Despite the tragedy Staines stayed on in India with her daughter, Esther, overseeing the completion of a hospital for leprosy patients in Orissa. She left for Australia only last year.
Christian leaders in Orissa today welcomed the government's decision to honor Staines.
''We are highly honored to know that the services of Graham and Gladys Staines to the poor and downtrodden has been acknowledged by the country, said Subhankar Ghosh, president of the Mayurbhanj Leprosy Home (MLH) at Baripada. 'We are thankful to the government for the decision.
According to the local New Kerala news agency, the Staines were running the MLH where leprosy patients were treated and rehabilitated.
Rev Pradip Kumar Das, vice-president of the MLH, said by honoring Staines the government had recognized the services rendered by her husband to the leprosy afflicted.
Gladys has been carrying on the unfinished task with the same commitment as her husband, Das said.
Binoy Kumar Muduli, president of the All Orissa United Christian Forum, also hailed the government decision to bestow the award on Gladys saying she greatly deserved the honor.
We sincerely thank the government for this decision, he said adding the fact that the Staines loved India and its people has been recognized.
According to the New Kerala, a new hospital named after Graham Staines was opened at Baripada last year.
As for Dara Singh, he and 17 others were sentenced to death in September 2003 by a local court for the murders of Staines husband and two sons. Immediately after the verdict Staines said she had forgiven the killers.