Critics have called on Indian police to abandon efforts to retrieve the body of a U.S. missionary killed during a mission to convert a tribe of “uncontacted” peoples to Christianity, the Agence France Press reported.
John Allen Chau, 26, was met with a hail of bow and arrows after being illegally ferried to India’s North Sentinel Island earlier this month. The off-limits remote island is home to the Sentinelese people, who have little to no contact with the outside world and are believed to be one of the last pre-Neolithic tribes in the world.
On Saturday, Indian authorities took a boat about 400 yards offshore of the island and spotted tribesmen on the beach with bows and arrows, forcing police to retreat for fear of disturbing the tribe or sparking another violent attack.
“We’ve not spotted the body yet, but we roughly know the area where he is believed to be buried,” police chief Dependra Pathak explained. “The (recovery) mission was done from a distance to avoid any potential conflict with the tribespeople as it’s a sensitive zone.”
Survival International, a group which seeks to protect the rights of tribal communities, has opposed recent efforts to recover Chau’s remains and urged authorities to call off the “dangerous” operation.
“The risk of a deadly epidemic of flu, measles or other outside disease is very real, and increases with every such contact,” the organization’s director Stephen Corry said in a statement. “Mr Chau’s body should be left alone, as should the Sentinelese.”
His sentiments were echoed by a group of Indian anthropologists, activists and authors familiar with the tribe, including Pankaj Sekhsaria, Vishvajit Pandya and Madhusree Mukerjee.
The activists argued, “The rights and the desires of the Sentinelese need to be respected, and nothing is to be achieved by escalating the conflict and tension, and worse, to creating a situation where more harm is caused.”
Chau reportedly perished after making contact with the tribe on November 16. According to writings in his journal, the young thrill seeker had visited the island multiple times that week and barely escaped with his life after being chased away by the arrow-wielding Sentinelese. Undeterred, Chau returned to North Sentinel Island the following day but never came back.
The fisherman who ferried him to the island said they later spotted the tribespeople burying Chau’s body on the beach.
Still, friends and relatives of the slain missionary believe there’s a chance he is still alive. According to the U.K.’s The Sun, a close friend of Chau’s, John Middleton Ramsey, argued that the absence of a body means there’s a chance the adventurer is still out there.
“I think there’s a possibility he may have survived — I wouldn’t rule it out,” Ramsey, a fellow missionary and real estate agent, told the online newspaper. “Chau’s mother is a Christian too and she has said that in her prayers that she had feelings that John might still be alive.”
“There weren’t a whole lot of eyewitnesses and so since his body hasn’t been found we shouldn’t rule it out, even if it is a small chance,” he added.
Activists fear continued missions to retrieve Chau, dead or alive, will result in harm for both sides, so its best that authorities leave it behind.
The bodies of two fishermen who accidentally strayed into Sentinelese waters in 2006 also have not been recovered.