Christians 'living in terror' in India's Desert State

Nov 11, 2002 03:00 AM EST

New Delhi -- Leading human rights groups have urged the Indian National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to take urgent steps to safeguard the rights of Christians in the western state of Rajasthan.

"The rights of the [Christian] community have been violated. They have been forced to live in terror," said Kavita Srivastava, general secretary of the Rajasthan unit of People's Union for Civil Liberties, which has petitioned India's human rights commission on behalf of the Christian community.

The civil liberties union - India's oldest and largest human rights organization - and a dozen other rights groups released a report last week on the situation of Christians in the Ajmer district of the state, said Srivastava.

The problems started after a Catholic priest was accused of molesting a Christian boy at St Martin School at Bhawani Kheda, the report said. Some Hindu groups used the alleged incident to run a "hate campaign" against the state's tiny Christian community, according to the report.

The accusation against the priest should have been treated like any other criminal allegations, Srivastava said, but was instead "communalized".

"The event was used to terrorize the local Christian population, tarnish the image of the institutions run by them for decades and also get the re-conversions carried out," said Srivastava, referring to pressure applied to Christian families to return to the Hindu fold.

Fundamentalists led a Hindu family boycott, withdrawing 231 students from the Catholic school and forcibly locking up a hostel, in effect barring 75 poor students who had been staying in the student housing from entering.

Later, leaders of the Hindu fundamentalist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council) visited the area and converted dozens of Christian families back to Hinduism, after threatening them with a social boycott.

Catholic Bishop Ignatius Menezes of the diocese of Ajmer-Jaipur said: "Our people are under great pressure to reconvert."

Christian families that have refused to sign a declaration of re-conversion "cannot enter some [Hindu] shops or even buy vegetables," the bishop told the reporters.

The state of affairs in Bhawani Kheda was not an isolated situation, Menezes asserted, but part of a "consistent hate campaign" being carried out against Christians in remote villages throughout the desert state. Christians make up less than half a per cent of the state's 55 million population
"We are living in fear," said the bishop.

By Anto Akkara