Anti-Christian attacks flare in India
Some see a government hand in the fanatical Hindu anger against a minority and its converts.
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The BJP says it has no hand in violence against any religious minorities. And hard-line Hindu nationalists from the Bajrang Dal and the VHP deny that the violence is politically motivated. "There was no violence," says Gauri Prasad Rath, the general secretary of the VHP in Orissa. "If there was any, it was because of the fraudulent conversions Christians are doing. They burned their own churches."Skip to next paragraph
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Hindus and Christians in India have a long history of peaceful coexistence, but there have long been claims that Christians here are forcibly converting Hindus and threatening India's identity. In some regions, conversions are taking place in large numbers. Especially in impoverished places like Kandhamal, which is heavily populated by animist tribes – a traditionally nature-worshipping ethnic group that is among India's poorest – the lure of institutional Christianity, which often offers education and healthcare, has proved especially strong.
Christians officially constitute less than 3 percent of India's 1 billion-plus population. Many church leaders themselves say that the proportion is a couple of percentage points under-reported in censuses.
Recently, tensions between poor Christian and Hindu communities nationwide have been exacerbated by Christian converts' calls for the benefits afforded dalits – Hindus at the bottom of the caste system – to be extended to dalit Christian converts. In Kandhamal, Christians have been agitating for the right to continue receiving benefits, including government jobs and university places. The issue has proved a rallying cry for political Hindu groups – as has the issue of forcible conversions. Many of the 12 states currently governed or co-governed by the BJP have introduced "conversion laws," which impose stiff prison sentences and fines on anyone found guilty of forcing a person to switch faiths.
But Ravi Nair, executive director of the South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, says that convictions are extremely rare. "It seems there's a certain paranoiac exaggeration of conversion activity in India."
Unfortunately, convictions over religious violence are also rare. Last March, a United Nations freedom-of-religion investigator warned that the scarcity of prosecutions and "political exploitation of communal tensions" put India at risk of more violence.
Now, Christian leaders fear this injustice may soon ignite violence within their own communities. "Young people are beginning to ask, is the government protecting us?" says Sam Paul, national secretary of public affairs for the All India Christian Council, an umbrella group of churches. "Or do we need to form into groups to defend ourselves? I really, really hope that doesn't happen."