Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh observed that "Christianity is part of our national heritage" when the Rev Dr Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC), called on him at his residence in New Delhi on 18 October 2008.
"We are extremely pleased to hear this assertion from the Indian prime minister," Kobia told a news conference after his meeting with the prime minister.
Prime minister Singh's comment is a rebuttal of the Hindu nationalist groups that describe Christianity as a "foreign religion" in justifying their campaign targeting the Christian community in India. Christians account for 2.32 percent of India's over one billion people.
In fact, Christianity in India is older than in the Christian strongholds of Europe and other Western countries.
According to tradition, the apostle Thomas reached Kerala on India's southwestern coast in the company of spice merchants from the Middle East in the year 52, laying the seeds of the vibrant Christian community in the "land of coconuts".
During the 30-minute audience granted to the WCC general secretary, Prime Minister Singh said the United Progressive Alliance coalition government he heads is committed "to restore normalcy" and curb attacks on Christians in the eastern Indian state of Orissa and other parts of the country.
When Kobia expressed his "deep concern" over the atrocities committed against Christians, especially in Orissa, Singh pointed out that the Indian constitution "guarantees freedom to practice and propagate one's faith" and assured Kobia that his government will take measures to restore the confidence of the Christian community.
Besides promises to extend financial assistance from the federal government to rebuild destroyed and damaged churches, Singh said his government will support Christian families that have lost their dwellings and other possessions in the violence.
Violence against Christians
Anti-Christian violence in Orissa was sparked by the killing of Hindu leader Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati on 23 August. Though Maoist rebels have claimed responsibility for the killing, Hindu groups said it was a Christian conspiracy as the slain leader based in Kandhamal had vigorously campaigned against conversion to Christianity.
In the unabated violence, at least 54 Christians have been killed, more than 5'000 Christian houses along with 142 churches and dozens of Christian institutions have been looted and torched by Hindu fundamentalists in Kandhamal where Christians account for over 20 percent of the half a million people.
With marauding Hindu groups forcibly converting Christians to Hinduism, more than two-thirds of the 100'000 Christians in Kandhamal have become refugees in jungles or relief camps run by the government, or they have fled to cities and urban areas.
"I conveyed to the prime minister the international Christian community's concern over the situation in Orissa and other areas," Kobia later told the media.
"We want the government to guarantee peace in order to instill confidence so that Christians may return to their villages and live there without fear," Kobia added.
Kobia said that Singh's government is "duty-bound to protect religious minorities" and gratefully noted that it had convened an emergency meeting of the National Integration Council last week to discuss the situation and put pressure on the Orissa government.
The federal government has rushed over 6'000 federal troupes to the troubled Kandhamal district on the request of Orissa government, he added.
The responsibility of the state
Under India's federal system, while maintenance of law and order is a state responsibility, the federal government has the power to dismiss an elected state government for its failure to uphold the rule of law.
However, political pundits feel such a drastic step would be "suicidal" for the federal government as the Hindu nationalists could capitalize on such a move – reinforcing their conspiracy theory of a Christian plot to convert India – with national elections due in the next months.
The government in Orissa state is led by a coalition in which the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party or Indian People's Party) is a partner. The Orissa government has been widely accused of condoning the orchestrated violence against Christians that continues after seven weeks.
Kobia conveyed to the Indian prime minister concern about India's "secular" image being "tarnished" by the continued reports of violence against Christians.
The prime minister said the federal government will spare no effort to ensure "freedom of worship" for Christians in southern Karnataka state, where Hindu groups are preventing evangelical groups that do not have their own centres from holding prayers in hired halls.
Dialogue on conversions
Responding to a question on forced conversions, Kobia said "conversion is a matter of conscience and faith".
The WCC, Kobia said, has been cooperating with Christian partners to formulate a "code of conduct" on conversions and is holding dialogue with representatives of other faiths to build consensus on this code, as faith should not be a reason for conflict among peoples.
"The attacks on Christians are really vicious. They are simply being slaughtered like lambs," the media at the press conference was told by Methodist Bishop Tharanath Sagar, president of the National Council of Churches in India (NCCI). Bishop Sagar, who is a member of the WCC central committee, was part of the delegation to meet the prime minister, as were WCC Asia programme executive Dr Mathews George Chunakara and P. J. Kurien, a prominent member of the Indian parliament who belongs to the Mar Thoma Church..
Dozens of churches and prayer halls have been attacked by Hindu fundamentalists in Karnataka state and its capital Bangalore, where Bishop Sagar is based.
"What is happening at the moment is a systematic campaign to disturb the social fabric of India for political gain," Bishop Sagar told the news conference. "Conversion is a bogey to justify the attack on Christians," he added.
The widespread anti-Christian violence comes ahead of the national election scheduled for early 2009. It is widely interpreted to be part of a systematic campaign harping on conversion to gain voters' support and consolidate a Hindu governing majority.
(c) Anto Akkara is a freelance journalist from Bangalore, India. He is currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI).