NEW DELHI — For more than a month, Christians in India have faced an unprecedented wave of violent attacks. Dozens of Christians have been burned alive and hundreds of houses and churches destroyed in the eastern state of Orissa. Attacks are being reported from other states as well.
What's behind the violence?
For starters, Christians are a distinct minority — roughly 2.3 percent — of the population. Hindus make up about 80 percent of the nation's 1.1 billion citizens. Hindu nationalists who say that to be Indian is to be Hindu resent Christian proselytism.
Tensions flared after Laxmanananda Saraswati, a leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, and four others were killed Aug. 23 in Orissa's Kandhamal district.
A radical Marxist group claimed responsibility, but the World Hindu Council blamed local Christians for the death of Saraswati, who had been fighting the conversion of Hindus to Christianity.
The council, which alleges that Christians use force and material benefits to convert Hindus, linked the subsequent reprisal attacks to "Hindu rage." Christian leaders deny allegations of forced conversions and say the council orchestrated the violence against Christians.
Bearing the brunt of the attacks are Christians in Orissa, the southern state of Karnataka and the northern state of Madhya Pradesh — all ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the main opposition party.
Critics say systematic attacks on Christians began when the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance ruled the country from 1998 to 2004.
The ruling United Progressive Alliance has issued a warning that unless attacks were halted, it would invoke a constitutional provision that would suspend the state governments of Orissa and Karnataka.
"The government moved only after (Hindu) council's youth wing … admitted to attacking Christians in Karnataka and after the council openly converted Christians to Hinduism under duress in several places," said Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of New Delhi.
"However, being a minority, we can't expect much."