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Polish missionary Father Marian Zalazek, who was nominated for this year's Nobel Peace Prize for his outstanding work among leprosy patients in Orissa, has built at least two Hindu temples in the colony where he works.

At a time when Christian missionaries in Orissa are accused of seeking to convert adivasis (tribal communities) and poor people--Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young children were burnt for his alleged conversion activities--the 84-year-old Father Zalazek showcases the fact that missionary activities are not driven by conversion alone.

Father Zalazek set up the temples at the Karunalaya Leprosy Care Centre, a village he established in 1975 on the outskirts of Puri, a town famed for the Jagannath temple. The village today houses 1,000 leprosy patients.

Marian Zalazek was born in a large, deeply religious, Polish family with 17 children--three of whom died in their childhood--on January 30, 1918. In 1932, Marian joined the Society of Divine Word as a student of philosophy.

As it did for millions of Poles, World War II altered Zalazek's life dramatically. The invading German army picked up Zalazek and 25 other seminarians, all of who were sent to the concentration camp at Dachau. Fourteen of the 26 died before the war ended in 1945, a tragedy that was to leave a deep scar on the young Zalazek. "This influenced me and I decided to carry out the unfulfilled mission of my classmates," he told

"I read an appeal to young men to join the missionaries of the Gymnasium of the Divine Word where I earlier studied philosophy. I put in my application and was accepted. After joining the Divine Word missionary, I selected India as my place of work because I was interested in working in a big country," he recalled.

Zalazek was sent to work in Orissa and arrived in Rourkela in 1950. For the next 25 years, he worked as a teacher and a priest in the adjoining Sundargarh district in western Orissa, providing education to poor adivasis and helping to improve their plight. His successful work did not go unnoticed.

When the Catholic Church decided to build a colony to house leprosy patients in Orissa, it chose Father Zalazek for the task. The Puri city administration also pitched in, giving him land on the city's outskirts to build the colony. The administration had a reason. The Jagannath temple in Puri, a very important pilgrimage centre for devout Hindus, attracted scores of beggars seeking alms from the worshippers. Among the beggars were leprosy patients, who, with nowhere to go, would stay outside the temple and on the roads leading to the temple, all of which hindered the pilgrims' movements. It had become necessary to find the leprosy patients a place to stay.

Zalazek established Karunalaya (literally, abode of mercy) on the donated land with just a few leprosy patients willing to move in initially. But the numbers slowly began to grow to the present 1,000. "I am successful in my mission here because the leprosy colony set up by me not only housed the patients, but over the years set up its own hospital and dental clinic, a textile factory, tailor's shop and a clothes store," the priest said. The colony also maintains its own kitchen garden and chicken farm, all of which can feed the colony members. Going beyond the colony, he organized the residents of a nearby village to build a small dam to protect their homes and fields from floods. This devout Christian also helped the residents of Karunalaya set up temples to Lord Jagannath and Lord Satyanarayan. The latter temple has an interesting history. "When some construction work for the colony was in progress a few years ago, we found a 13th century idol of Satyanarayan from the site. I personally took the idol to archaeologists for verification. Now the idol is set up in one of the temples for people to worship," he said. Zalazek agreed that there were some fears about his motives. "Initially people suspected that we would convert all the leprosy patients. But when they judged our intention and saw our hard work, all of them joined with us in this good work. Not a single leprosy patient here has changed his religion," he added. "I do not believe in changing religion. We all are children of God," he continued. "Let us serve God through the poor and deprived. We do not have a single church in the leprosy patients' village." The devout priest stays at the Isopanthi Ashram, about 2km from the leprosy patients' colony, and prays at a church located there. "I go to church, but I cannot force anybody to go there unless he himself has that desire from his heart," he explained. "When any of the village residents dies, we perform rituals as prescribed by the Hindu rites in case he is a Hindu." Leprosy patient Satrughan Hota, 65, who has lived at Karunalaya for 20 years now, can vouch for that. "Father Zalazek visits the temple and sits in prayer with the others," he said. Surendar Marandi, who is the caretaker of Karunalaya, echoes the sentiment. "He is a Christian missionary, but he has never converted any person from Hinduism to Christianity, contrary to the claims of Hindu fundamentalists. Rather, he is a keeper of Hindu traditions," declared Marandi.

Two years ago, Zalazek was conferred the highest civilian award of Poland, the Chivalry Cross, for his work as a missionary in India. And recently, two Polish Nobel laureates, Czeslaw Milosz and Wieslawa Szymborska, along with many others, have recommended Zalazek, who remains a citizen of Poland, for the Nobel Peace Prize for the year 2002.

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