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Christian groups say politics behind India attacks

Posted on Sat, Oct 4, 2008

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - From the rape of a nun to arson and killings, Christian leaders in India accuse Hindu nationalist groups of deliberately targeting Christians in eastern India to support their political agenda and shore up their support base.

The accusations come as authorities in Orissa state say they have arrested four people and ordered a probe into reports of the gang rape of a nun in August, and suspended the officer who was in charge of the investigation for dereliction of duty.

A string of attacks on Christians in three states has killed at least 34 people and forced thousands to flee to government camps or hide in forests.

The troubles have been sparked by controversial conversion campaigns by Christian groups in poor tribal areas.

"(There is) a hidden agenda to (make) the entirety of Orissa into a Hindu state," said Archbishop Raphael Cheenath of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar in Orissa, where most of the violence has been concentrated.

Cheenath compared the violence to the slaughter of over 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002.

He said that hardliners were "following the Modi style," referring to the state's Chief Minister Narendra Modi from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who has been accused of giving Hindu mobs a free run to carry out the carnage.

Orissa police say they have arrested more than 300 people over the clashes, including local leaders of the BJP, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Hindu nationalist groups have denied their involvement.

While over 4,000 federal police have been deployed in Orissa, Christian leaders and human rights groups say the violence has not been brought under control, and called on the state government, run by Hindu nationalists, to do more.

"The state government has not rooted out the violence - that is quite disconcerting," a spokesman for Amnesty International told Reuters.

"The people in the relief camps who wanted to return have been told they have to re-convert to Hinduism. That should be taken very seriously by the state government."

Cheenath said Hindu activists are trying to scare Christians into leaving the camps by throwing bombs nearby, aiming to forcibly reconvert them to Hinduism once they are outside. The All India Christian Council has listed assaults against Christians it says were carried out since August, including murder, rape, and attacks on churches and schools.

The Hindu, a respected national newspaper, this week carried reports a nun was stripped naked and gang-raped. It said a priest who tried to stop the attack was beaten and doused in kerosene in full view of the police.

According to Orissa authorities, a medical report has confirmed a rape took place.

"We were not impressed by the reaction of the state government," said A.M. Chinnappa, Archbishop of Madras-Mylapore.

Pope Benedict has condemned the attacks and Roman Catholic bishops have urged the European Union to treat persecution of Christians as a humanitarian emergency.

Hindus have opposed missionaries' conversions of lower-caste Hindus, which they said were sometimes carried out by force.

A BJP spokesman in Orissa blamed clashes on the murder of a prominent Hindu missionary belonging to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and a vocal opponent of Christian proselytising.

"Police failure to arrest the criminals who killed Swamiji and others has angered the local people," the spokesman said."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called the violence a "national shame," and on Friday the Home Minister Shivraj Patil called on the Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to do more to control the violence.

(Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Jerry Norton)

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