Recent religious conflict in the Indian state of Orissa has been aided by the aggressive evangelising of missionaries from outside the region, says an official with the largest traditional Protestant denomination in northern India - writes Kristine Greenaway from New Delhi.
The roots of the tension lie in concerns about the conversion of Hindus to Christianity and in a long-simmering dispute about the rights and benefits granted to Christian converts under India's caste system, the Rev Enos das Pradhan, general secretary of the Church of North India, said in a recent interview with Ecumenical News International. An upsurge in evangelisation by missionaries from overseas and from southern India has further inflamed tensions in the area, said Pradhan.
In December 2007, a violent confrontation in Orissa's Kandhamal district, between Christians and members of a Hindu group, opposed to conversion, set off a wave of retaliation that resulted in extensive damage to the property of Christians at a time they were celebrating the holy feast of Christmas.
Concerns about Christian evangelisation in Orissa date back to the 1970s when anti-conversion legislation was passed by the state. Under the law, people wishing to convert to Christianity must apply to district authorities for approval to be baptised or face a fine or imprisonment. Since then seven other states have passed similar legislation. The laws in each state seek to set conditions for conversion, but penalties imposed in the form of the loss of economic and education rights following conversion vary.
Indians of lower castes, now known as Dalits, were reported to have been the targets of much of the violence in Orissa. India has affirmative action legislation which reserves access to some government jobs and education opportunities for people from economically or socially marginalised castes. Christian Dalits have, however, historically been denied these "reservation" rights on the basis that as Christians they are free from discrimination based on the Hindu caste system.
India's 160 million Dalits represent one seventh of the country's population. Fears that proposals to extend affirmative action benefits to Dalit Christians would make it more attractive to convert have led Hindus to resist proposals to extend "Reservation" rights to Dalit converts.
Further complicating the situation, people known as Tribals in Orissa who convert to Christianity are allowed to retain their affirmative action "reservation" rights. Dalits and Tribals account for nearly 75 per cent of all converted Christians in India.
Indian-born communication rights specialist Pradip Thomas, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia, said the presence of external evangelists has contributed to the rise in militant anti-conversion efforts by Hindu organisations such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal.
"Missionaries from South India are involved in 'spiritual warfare' using the media and Christian networks," Thomas said.
With the rise in religious intolerance fuelled by Hindu extremists and Christian evangelists, there are also fears that freedom of religion in India is under attack. In a statement released in December 2007, Human Rights Watch urged both Hindu and Christian leaders to work toward peaceful reconciliation, warning that India's secular identity is at risk.
"The challenge facing the Christian Church in India today is to learn how to live as strong Christians in a pluralistic society," Pradhan says. "Sixty years after Indian independence, the future of secularism is at stake."
Christianity, with about 26 million adherents, accounts for about 2.3 percent of India's 1.1 billion people. It is the country's third-largest religion, following Hinduism and Islam. Judaism arrived in India about 2500 years ago.
"Fear haunts Christians after violence in India's Orissa state"
"It was Christmas, but that's when attack started in Indian state"
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]