Catholic authorities in the eastern state of Orissa have appealed to the central government to halt the anti-Christian campaign launched by Hindu fundamentalists, police, and local media.
On Wednesday, the Times of India reported that three Christians were attacked after having been suspected of converting some villagers in Gopinath, in the Balasore district. The same day, the police reported that a man was attacked by some Christians because he refused to change his creed.
Such contradictory accounts are part of a trend targeting "conversions," said AsiaNews, an agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions.
Bishop Thomas Thiruthalil of Balasore told AsiaNews that the issue of conversions is "an easy instrument in the hands of groups and fringe extremists who want to ignite social hatred."
“Anti-social elements are taking advantage of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, to intimidate tribals with the knowledge and consent of the local administration,” he said.
The Freedom of Religion Act bans all forced conversions, but the law is frequently used to threaten the tribals.
The prelate, who is also chairman of the Orissa Bishops’ Regional Council, turned to India's interior minister to find a solution.
For his part, John Dayal, president of the All Indian Catholic Union, an organization representing 16 million faithful, warned that the news about conversions to Christianity is frequently invented by fundamentalists -- though the violence against Christians is all too real.
The issue of conversions provokes opposition in various Indian states.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party governs the state of Orissa, one of those with the greatest presence of Hindu fundamentalists. The BJP promotes a one-religion, ideological nationalism and is supported by fundamentalist movements that oppose the Catholic Church's work in social services and development.
Also active in the state is the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the religious wing of the BJP, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu paramilitary group known for its opposition to religious minorities.
Last Saturday, AsiaNews, an agency of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, reported that the leader of the fundamentialst party Shiv Sena (SS) had presided over a ceremony in Melghat during which four ethnic tribals "returned to Hinduism."
The president of Shiv Sena laughed at what he called Christian missionaries' attempts at "proselytism." He threatened those who fail to stop "exploiting the poor and illiterate tribals."
"We will teach them who the SS is," he said.
Talk of forced "conversions," like the "reconversions," are false, says Bishop Edwin Colaço of Amravati. He cited a recent newspaper account of the baptism of four tribals in a local river.
The prelate wrote to the authorities of the district and to the editor of the publication, protesting the "false news."
"These adivasi [tribals] were not converted to Catholicism," he said. "The Catholic Church in Melghat had nothing to do with their baptism."
Meanwhile, Father Christo Das, of the Diocese of Dumka in Jharkhand, a central state, was sentenced to three years in prison on false charges brought against him by Hindu fundamentalists, according to Bishop Julius Marandi.
Father Das, vice principal of St. Joseph's School at Guhiyajori, was sentenced Dec. 13 on morals charges dating back to 1997.
"We are shocked and saddened by the court's decision," Bishop Marandi said. "We were expecting justice and a favorable court order. We will appeal to the district court and hope we will get justice there."
He added that people are holding vigils and praying "for justice to be done" in the diocese's convents and parishes.
The bishop contended that Father Das is a dedicated priest who has devoted his life to help tribals. Indeed, the tribal population of Dumka Diocese overwhelmingly supports the priest, according to the bishop.
"There are one or two tribals who have been manipulated by the fundamentalists to press charges," he said.
"Raising the issue of sexual misconduct is proof enough that their intent was to discredit the priest," Bishop Marandi said. "Father Das himself is convinced that the charges are designed to stop his work on behalf of tribals."
In the state of Gujarat, Hindu fundamentalists have planned rallies and festivals for Dec. 25.
On Christmas Night 1998, stick-wielding militants from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad beat up Christians, destroyed Bibles and thrashed churches in the Dangs district.
This year one of the alleged instigators of the 1998 riots is planning a Hindu festival -- Dutt Jayanti Pran Pratishtha Mahosatsav -- in Naldadev during Christmas celebrations. Some local Christians are convinced that even the Akhand Harinam Saptah, a festival planned for Dec. 25 and 26, is designed to disrupt Christmas events.
In a letter to Gujarat's chief secretary, the All India Christian Council voiced its concerns thus: "We would like, for once, to be able to celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord without the watchful eyes of gun-totting policemen because our lives as Christians are in danger."