NEW DELHI – Inside the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Sacred Heart, an oil painting of Jesus at the Last Supper looked down upon the congregation as a priest led some 200 in prayer.
The Mass here was underway and the hymns in Hindi wafted up among the high vaulting arches, but this air of peace and tranquility inside the cathedral contrasted sharply with the ominous feeling that has descended over India's minority Christian community in recent months.
Throughout the fall, scores of Christians were killed in India, thousands made homeless, their churches destroyed. Hindu extremists are suspected in many of the attacks.
What’s more, the violence, which started in the eastern state of Orissa in late August, didn’t stop there. Instead, it spread to Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and even Goa, a state better known for its rave parties, hippie ghettos and coastal seafood fare.
Christians form only 2.3 percent of India’s population. But given the country's size, its Christian population – 24 million according to the 2001 Indian census – is hardly small.
For years, Christians coexisted peacefully with India’s 82 percent Hindu majority, but the growth of fringe fundamentalism has begun to tear at India’s largely secular fabric.
Of late, Christian missionary work and terror attacks blamed on Muslim extremists have fueled anger among splinter Hindu extremist groups, whose self-professed goal is to fully convert India into a nation for Hindus.
Over a cup of tea recently, Catholic Archbishop Vincent Michael Concessao puzzled over the escalating scale of attacks carried out by the Sangh Parivar. The Sangh Parivar is an umbrella group that comprises several right-wing organizations, including its more acceptable political face, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
“There is fear about what will happen, even in places with strong Christian communities like Mangalore," Concessao said.
In October, churches and congregations in Mangalore, a southern Indian city, were systematically attacked for the first time.
“Mangalore is the sort of place that has never had this trouble either in the recent past or going way back,” said Rhoda D’sa, who retired from the Reserve Bank of India and now teaches in Bangalore. “We share a common language and a common culture — we’ve been neighbors — and we were never aware of a feeling of alienation," D'sa added.
Religious violence isn’t new to India, which still carries scars from the 1947 partition that created India and Pakistan. A million people died in primarily Hindu-Muslim violence.
For most of the past 61 years, however, secularism has been India’s predominant belief. It’s only recently that Hindu right-wing parties have grown in strength. Their mission: to rescue Hinduism from the evangelical forces of Christianity and what they perceive as the perils of Islam.
Targeted Christian attacks began this year after a right-wing Hindu leader was murdered Aug. 23 in Kandhamal. Hindu militant outfits blamed Christians and took revenge.
Kandhamal is a sort of battleground for faith wars. A majority of its population is tribal. India’s original inhabitants, who historically followed localized nature-based rituals, number roughly 84 million. Hindu and Christian groups have undertaken serious missionary efforts to bring them into their fold.
Conservative Hindu groups have been pushing for a ban on conversion and the eradication of cow slaughter. Cows are sacred in Hinduism and their slaughter is outlawed in most Indian states. Several states have also passed anti-conversion laws.
Many Hindus are opposed to Christian missionary work — they lambast it as insensitive to the Hindu religion. In some cases extreme Christian groups have been disrespectful to Hinduism, although judging by published accounts such events seem relatively rare.
“So much money comes into (Orissa) for (Christian) missionary efforts” from overseas, said Tathagata Sathpathy, a minister of Parliament. “These guys offered dalits better chances by offering them jobs, free education, and other benefits that any poor community needs. That’s one reason why there have been mass conversions to Christianity.”
Most Indian Christians, roughly 70 percent, are from India’s dalit community, previously known as "untouchables" in India’s caste hierarchy. Conversions to Christianity occurred over centuries. Recently, however, Hindu militant groups have begun forcing groups of Christians to re-convert to Hinduism, spreading terror in rural Christian communities.
Babu Kumar Nayak, a 16-year-old Christian from Kandhamal, watched his home burn in September before walking 350 kilometers to safety.
“Those who attacked us were my classmates," Nayak said. "Some of them I have known all my life. I was watching, as they were singing: ‘Hindu, Hindu, brothers all/We won’t keep the Christians among us/No other faith will be allowed to spread/If it does, we will burn it down.’”
This kind of hostility, many Christians say, used to be rare.
“The country had never known the power of the vote of religion, and that vote was capitalized when the BJP played the Hindu card and came to power in 1998,” said Maxwell Perreira, former joint commissioner of police in New Delhi.
To fight the rising trend of communalism, many Christians hope that Indians will exercise their preference for secularism in the general elections early next year.
"We have not done enough to gather the secular forces in the country,” mused Concessao, the archbishop. “It’s the lay man who needs to be at the forefront of this movement.”