Anti-Christian violence, which began in a remote district of India's tribal belt in the eastern state of Orissa in late August, has become an international embarrassment for India's secular Congress-led government. It has spread to four more states, including Karnataka, the home of the subcontinent's information technology hub in Bangalore.

On the sidelines of the signing of an Indo-French nuclear deal this week, Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president and current European Union president, said he had conveyed to Manmohan Singh, India's prime minister, the EU's "serious concerns" over "massacres of Christians".

Mr Singh has condemned the violence and asked state governments to step up security. The ruling coalition fears the rise in tensions between majority Hindus and the Christian minority could play into the hands of the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party.

"It is a bloody war, a systematically organised crime primarily targeting Christians," says Dr Swarupananda Patra, president of the Orissa Minority Forum and local head of the YMCA, a non-government organisation running a relief camp for about 600 victims.

The fear is the violence might spread to neighbouring Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, which also have predominantly tribal populations, a large presence of Hindu nationalists, Maoists and a Christian minority.

Attempts to restore peace to Kandhamal district, the epicentre of the religious riots, appear to have had little effect. Hindu crowds on Tuesday set fire to two, mostly Christian, villages, killing one Christian and burning a church. The authorities arrested at least 30 people and imposed an indefinite 24-hour curfew in nine towns in the district.

In a relief camp in Bhubaneswar, Rabindra Nath Pradhan, a Christian of the Pana ethnic group, recounts the mob attack on his village. "First, they burnt down the church. Then they went to my brother's house and burnt him alive," he said. "They were shouting 'Jai Shri Ram'," the cry of Hindus hailing the warrior-god.

Threatened with the imposition of presidential rule by New Delhi, the Orissa state government has reinforced the police and paramilitary presence in the hilly and inaccessible district 200km from Bhubaneswar, the state capital.

At least 33 people, most of them Christians, have been killed in the district since the murder of a hardline Hindu priest there in late August. Maoists claimed responsibility and have threatened to kill 14 local leaders of the Hindu nationalist Vishnu Hindu Parishad and Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for "inciting communal violence".

About 20,000 Christians in Kandhamal have taken refuge in state-run camps that remain off-limits to relief agencies and journalists. Christians who have lost their homes have been told they can return only if they convert to Hinduism.

Another victim, a 30-year- old Pana Christian from the village of Sakadi, said she fled to the forest when a mob approached. As she surveyed the charred debris of her house the next morning, villagers told her she was no longer welcome. "Since you are Christian, we cannot protect you. You'd better leave."

Members of the BJP, which rules the state in alliance with a regional party, deny that people are targeted for being Christian. "This is conflict between two communities," says Jual Oram, a BJP member of parliament from Orissa.

The former minister for tribal affairs in Orissa accuses the local Pana, of whom 95 per cent are Christian, of posing as Hindus to secure access to government jobs and education afforded to lower-caste Hindus under India's job reservation laws.

Villagers say Hindu militant outfits have been distributing a list of more than 12 Christians who, they allege, were behind the killing of Swami Laxmanananda Sarawati, the priest. He is thought to have converted 50,000 Christians to Hinduism since he arrived in the state the late 1960s.

Many observers believe that Hindu nationalists have turned an old conflict over identity, rights and entitlement between two communities into a religious one in an attempt to win votes for the BJP in the forthcoming national elections.

The proxy war over faith is fought between the original inhabitants, the predominantly Hindu tribals of the Kandha ethnic group and the former Hindu Dalits - formerly known as untouchables - of the Pana ethnic group, who have converted in large numbers to Christianity to escape India's caste system.

By Tom Felix Joehnk in Bhubaneswar

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2008

Source: Persecution India http://persecution.in/