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Thursday, September 24, 1998 Published at 17:46 GMT 18:46 UK

World: South Asia

Christian nuns raped in India

The attack caused fear and outrage among India's Christians

The authorities in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh have increased security around religious buildings and homes of the Christian community in two districts, following attacks and sexual assaults on a group of nuns on Wednesday.

The incident happened in the village of Nawapada, at the convent of the Foreign Missionary Sisters, who provide medical help in rural areas.

The attack

In the early hours of the morning a group of armed men, brandishing swords and canes, broke open the grilled gates of the convent, after pleading with the sisters to accompany them to a patient in the area.

The sisters had refused to go, asking the men to bring a letter from the local priest.

The men then dragged four nuns to a farm field, and raped two of them.

The identities of the nuns were not revealed, but they were all under 35, and came from the southern coastal state of Tamil Nadu, the All India Catholic Union said.

The motive

Habans Singh, the state's home minister said 18 people were being sought by police in connection with the attack, and a judicial inquiry had also been announced.

A reward of 50,000 rupees (US$1,190) was offered for information about the attackers, who also ransacked the convent, the minister said.

Mr Singh said the motive for the attack had apparently been robbery, and the rape of the nuns was not premeditated. A local official said the suspects were members of a local criminal gang.

But our correspondent says that the Christian community thinks otherwise.

Christian fears

Christians believe that they are being targeted by Hindu militant groups in remote and rural parts of the country, where Christians are generally poor and powerless.

Other attacks on Christians have taken place earlier in neighbouring districts, but Christian suspicions that they were connected have not been proved.

Institutions run by Christian missionary groups in the state of Madhya Pradesh are reported to have remained closed on Thursday in protest.

Madhya Pradesh is currently in the midst of an assembly election. The opposition Hindu nationalist BJP has condemned the attack, and blamed it on what it described as the breakdown of law and order in the state.

A party spokesman said the authorities were trying to play down the seriousness of the incident.

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