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ANS (01/18/06) – With a Hindu festival on the horizon, the All Indian Christian Council has led a delegation to meet with the Indian Home Minister to apprise him of the ongoing intimidation of religious minority communities by Hindu extremist groups.

Human rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported in a news release that the All Indian Christian Council (AICC) delegation, backed by a number of other groups, met with Home Minister Shivraj Patil on Jan. During the meeting they let him know their concerns about the forthcoming Shabri Kumbh Mela in the Dangs, a remote district in Gujarat, western India on Feb.11 to 13.

The AICC expressed its fears that as well as stirring up communal violence, the festival will have a significant environmental impact on the area. Severe anti-Christian violence erupted in the district in 1998 when 36 rural churches were attacked over the Christmas period, following provocation from Hindu extremist groups.

The delegation requested, CSW reported, that the government intervene to prevent the festival from taking place. Should it be allowed to proceed, however, the AICC urged that the government take measures to prevent a serious outbreak of religious violence.

The slogan “Hindu Jago, Christi Bhagao” translated as “Arise Hindus, throw out the Christians,” has been used by the festival organizers, CSW reported, to stir up religious tensions and to give the Dangs people a Hindu sense of identity.

Some 185,000 people, mostly tribal Indians, live in the area, but the event is aiming to attract 500,000, CSW reported. The majority of tribals practise animism, but the festival has been organised to encourage them to “re-convert” to Hinduism.

The AICC fears this is part of a political plan, CSW stated, aiming to garner more support for the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in an area which is a traditional stronghold of the more secular Congress Party.

The Gujarati government under Chief Minister Modi, has, according to the AICC, contributed large amounts of funding for the festival.

Dr Joseph D’Souza, President of the AICC, said in a news release issued by CSW, “We can only imagine the kind of violence and communalism that will emanate if this event is allowed to happen. If the event is allowed, the AICC requests that the government provides adequate supervision to maintain law and order and save innocent lives.”

Dr D’Souza also expressed concern that the ceremony would be socially destructive for the tribals living in the Dangs district, CSW stated. Although the place of tribals in the caste system is comparable to that of to Dalits, those in the Dangs district have little notion of caste. However, according to D’souza, “the re-conversion ceremony will definitely include the tribal peoples into the realm of untouchability.”

Patel assured the AICC delegation he would take sufficient precautions to prevent violence against Muslim and Christian communities in Gujarat .

Mervyn Thomas, Chief Executive of CSW, said in the news release, “We fully support the AICC in its concerns as expressed to the Indian government. This festival has the potential for instigating large-scale violence and widespread communal tension and we would urge the Indian Government to do all within its power to ensure the safety of religious minority groups in the area. The tribal people of the Dangs area must be free to choose their religious allegiance without coercion.”

The Shabri Kumbh Mela event, CSW reported, is said to commemorate the mythological story of Shabri and Ram in which the latter kills the demon Ravana. The Hindu nationalist organizers of the event have called for the same treatment for Christians, describing it as a dangerous foreign faith.

According to CSW, commentators in India have drawn attention to the fact that while this event is modeled on the Kumbh Mela festival, a centuries-old tradition which takes place every 12 years in one of four fixed locations across India (none of which are in Gujarat), its real focus seems to be an attack on the practice of Christian faith in the district.

The Dangs area is inhabited by tribal peoples, a small minority of whom are Christians and Muslims. A slogan on the main Hindu temple in the district is translated, CSW reported, “Our resolve is to free the world from the ideologies of conversions and jihad.”

There are about 185,000 people living in the Dangs area, 92 percent of whom are tribals from the Bhils, Kokanis and Warlis. About 5 percent are Christians.

CSW is a human rights organization which works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs.