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Tension Builds Among Gujarat’s Tribal Christians on the days leading up to Christmas

By James Varghese
12/26/07 INDIA (ANS) — Ahead of Christmas, tension began to build up again in the tribal regions of Gujarat, after Hindu extremist groups converted more than 2,000 tribal Christians to Hinduism.

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A conversion ceremony took place on Dec. 16 at Vyara, 1,300 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. The town is the headquarters of newly created Tapi district.

Hindu groups, according to media reports, converted some 2,500 tribal Christians at a public function. Jesuit Father Stanny Jebamalai, who works in the area, confirmed to UCA News that more than 2,000 Christians joined Hinduism.

Since 1998, tribal belts in the state have witnessed tension during the Christmas season. That year, the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian peoples’ party) came to power in a state election.

Hindu groups have accused Christian missioners of exploiting tribal poverty and ignorance to increase Christian numbers. In 1998, Hindu radicals attacked tribal people, priests and nuns, and also set churches on fire and desecrated Bibles and churches.

This year, on the “reconversion” day, suspected Hindu radicals set fire to a sugarcane crop on the grounds of Jesuit-managed Shantiniketan High School in Zankhav, a village in Surat district, which borders Tapi.

For the reconversion, Hindu groups brought tribal Christians from Gujarat’s Dangs and Tapi districts, as well as from neighboring Maharashtra state. In speeches at the gathering, Hindu leaders reportedly accused local Christians of joining with Maoists to fight Hindu landlords and convert more people to Christianity.

Tapi’s deputy collector, N.S. Halbe, the second-highest official in the district, told local media that the function had government permission. According to him, local authorities have confirmed the conversions.

The incident has created tension in tribal pockets, particularly Dharampur and Kaprada villages of Valsad district, in the southernmost part of Gujarat, which has a sizable tribal Christian population.

Father Jebamalai told UCA News the “induced and forced” conversion of tribal Christians was aimed at creating “a sense of fear among Christians and prevent missioners from working in the area.” He feared more violence might happen in the area during Christmas.

Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist, told UCA News the Hindu groups want to “vitiate the peaceful atmosphere” and terrorize Christians working for the welfare of poor tribal people in the area. The priest is based in Ahmedabad, the state’s commercial capital, 915 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.

Joseph Amrutbhai Patel, a Catholic, told UCA News Hindu groups want to pit tribal people against Christians. He is based in Ahwa, headquarters of Dangs district, where several attacks have occurred in recent years.

Christian leaders say Hindu radicals fear tribal and lower-caste people getting educated, which could lead them not only to stop slaving for upper-caste Hindus but also to question the idea of high-caste superiority. Political groups also have vested interests in keeping the poor uneducated, Church leaders allege.

Sayakam Joshi, a liberal Hindu in Surat who has worked in tribal areas for the past three decades, believes Hindu fanatic groups want to keep alive the memory of the anti-tribal violence in 1998. Hindu groups in the area accuse missioners of forcibly converting tribal people. However, no government has found evidence to prove Christians engaged in “forced or induced” conversions, Joshi told UCA News.

About 144,000 Christians living in 311 Dangs villages comprise hardly 5 percent of the district’s population, according to Babubhai Desai, who adds that Christians comprise only around 1 percent in Bharuch, Narmada, Navsari, Surat, Tapi and Valsad districts.

Desai dismissed as baseless “nonsense” the allegation that missioners induced tribal people to Christianity by offering them education and health care. According to him, many tribal people turn to Christianity to escape social discrimination they experience in the villages. In Christianity they enjoy equal status with other Christians, he said.