Christians Worship in Fear in Eastern India

October 26, 2008

Author: Tim Sullivan

Source: The Associated Press

They still worship in what remains of the little Baptist church not far from this forest town. The church is empty except for the rubble swept neatly into the corners. The sun comes through ragged holes where the mob smashed in the window frames.

On the roof, the crucifix is just twisted metal and broken concrete. It's barely recognizable, and you have to ask to make sure that's what it once was.

Here, prayers are said only in secret.

"We do it without making any noise," said Subhash Digal, holding his 4-month-old son on his hip as he stood outside the church, where the smell of burned timber lingered on a warm autumn afternoon. "We don't want these people to know we are inside."

In this corner of the eastern state of Orissa, it's hard to find a Christian who isn't afraid.

Bloody anti-Christian riots broke out here in late August, rampages by Hindu hard-liners that since then have left at least 38 people dead, as many as 30,000 homeless and dozens of churches destroyed. The worst of the violence ended after a week or so, when authorities finally deployed soldiers to set up checkpoints and relief camps.

But nearly every day since then, the trouble has continued: a house burned, a carload of people beaten, a soldier hacked to death. Repeatedly, Christian villagers say, they have been told they must convert to Hinduism. The anti-Christian violence has also flickered across other parts of India, with churches vandalized and Christians attacked in the high-tech hub of Bangalore, the city of Mangalore and the coastal state of Kerala. In a country desperate to be seen as a stable, democratic world power, the violence is a window into India's hidden fragility, its sometimes-dangerous political climate and the fierce historical divisions buried in its vast diversity.