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Friday, November 5, 1999 Published at 15:27 GMT

World: South Asia

Analysis: Christians in India

Christians are a small but visible minority in India

By South Asia analyst Alastair Lawson

In an interview shortly before the general election, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said one of the major achievements during his tenure in power had been the fact that there had been no major communal violence in India.

Although few people would disagree with the prime minister's assertion, the same boast can be made by most governments of India since the early 1990s.

[ image:  ]
That is because the last major communal riots in India took place in 1992, when more than a thousand people died following the destruction of a mosque by a predominantly Hindu mob in the northern town of Ayodhya.

It is true to say that largescale riots between Hindus and Muslims have been less widespread in the last decade than in the years immediately following independence.

But it is also true to say that there are still numerous incidents in which individual members of religious minorities - especially Christians - have been the targets of particularly savage attacks.

Attacks on Christians

Perhaps the most vivid example of this in recent months has been the murder of an Australian missionary in the state of Orissa.

He was burnt to death by a mob along with his two children at the beginning of the year. In September, a Roman Catholic priest was murdered in the same state by a gang armed with bows and arrows.

[ image: Right-wing Hindu groups are accused of stirring up anti-Chrisitian feelings]
Right-wing Hindu groups are accused of stirring up anti-Chrisitian feelings
But Orissa is not the only state in India where Christians have been attacked over the last twelve months. Roman Catholic nuns have been attacked in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar, and in the eastern state of Gujarat, Christian villages have been attacked.

The Christian community in India argues that many of these attacks have been encouraged by right wing Hindu groups who have connections with the Bharatiya Janata Party - the major group within India's governing coalition.

They accuse organisations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Bajrang Dal of stirring up anti-Christian fervour.

Members of these groups who have made no secret of their opposition to the Pope's visit, and been the most vociferous in protesting against it.

Pope's visit

In its early history the BJP was closely allied to some of these right wing groups, but recently it appears that the party's senior leadership has striven to disassociate itself from many of their campaigns.

Prime Minister Vajpayee, is widely regarded as a moderate who does not wish to offend the sensibilities of the many secular parties within his governing coalition.

It is for this reason that he has ordered the arrest of several VHP members prior to the Pope's arrival in India.

[ image:  ]
However the government - obviously performing a delicate balancing act - has also refused to allow the Indian vice president to attend a multi-faith which the Pope is scheduled to address.

The foreign ministry said that the Indian Government and state representatives to not attend religious functions in their official capacity.

At the heart of the recent tension between India's Christian and Hindu communities is the allegation that some Christian groups are forcefully converting Hindus. In India, that is not permitted under the constitution, but the issue has been complicated by the difficulties in defining a forced conversion.

Tensions between converted Christians and non-Christians are acute in India's less developed states - such as Bihar and Orissa - where the Christianisation of the tribal community is resented by many Hindu groups.

Overall, however, it must be remembered that India remains a tolerant society where for the most part Hindus, Muslims and Christians and other faiths co-exist peacefully.

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