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Sunday, January 10, 1999 Published at 15:10 GMT

World: South Asia

Vajpayee calls for debate on religion

Christians in Bombay protest against the attacks

The Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has suggested a national debate on religious conversions after attacks on Christians institutions in the troubled district of Dangs in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

Dangs' minority Christian community has come under attack from Hindu fundamentalist groups in recent weeks.

[ image: A Christian school vandalised over Christmas]
A Christian school vandalised over Christmas
Mr Vajpayee visited Dangs on Sunday to assess the situation following national condemnation of the attacks.

On meeting the prime minister, a delegation of Hindu groups led by local members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or the World Hindu Council, said tension in the region was the result of religious conversions being practised by missionaries - a charge denied by the Christians.

Speaking at a news conference, Mr Vajpayee sought to reassure the Christian community. He said the government in Gujarat had been asked to take strict action against anyone trying to whip up communal tension.

And he criticised the Gujarat government for failing to ban a Hindu rally on Christmas Day which led to Hindu-Christian clashes.

Mr Vajpayee said he was aware that the Indian constitution allowed everybody to propagate their religion, but added that maybe the time had come to take a fresh look at the subject.

Observers say the Indian prime minister's attempt at debate about religious conversions could fuel a new controversy. He and his governing party - the Hindu nationalist BJP - could be seen as taking sides with Hindu extremists.

The attacks may already have set back the BJP's efforts to project itself as more than just a Hindu party.

Christians constitute fewer than 15% of the nearly 150,000 population of Dang and the area has no previous history of communal violence between the majority Hindu community and the Christians.

Gujarat government 'unsympathetic'

Mike Wooldrige reports: The prime minister has denied an anti-Christian campaign
Since the attacks on Christmas Day, there have been about 25 violent incidents with missionary-run schools and churches the main targets of Hindu extremists.

A Christian delegation told the prime minister schools were being deliberately targeted to scare Christians away from the tribal district.

[ image: A Gandhi disciple swells the protests]
A Gandhi disciple swells the protests
They also said the prime minister was their last hope as the BJP government in Gujarat was not sympathetic to their concerns.

Several of the BJP's allies in the national government also say the Gujarat provincial government has not taken a strong enough line against the violence.

World Hindu Council accused

The United Christian Forum for Human Rights (UCFHR) says it recorded more than 60 cases of violence against Christians during 1998, including incidents of Bible burning and rape. Most of the attacks are said to have taken place in Gujarat.

The Christian community says the attacks are part of a concerted campaign against them by Hindu organisations, including the VHP.

The VHP has denied any involvement, and repeatedly accused Christian missionaries of converting forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity - a charge Christians deny.

Christians also say that the situation has worsened since the BJP came to power in Delhi in March.

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