01/03/2004, 00.00
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'Reconversion' claim by Hindu group increases tension in Gujarat

Ahmedabad (AsiaNews/UCAN) -- Christians in Gujarat state dismiss a Hindu group's claim it "reconverted" 1,000 Christians to Hinduism on Christmas Eve but admit such "stunts" frighten them.

On Christmas Eve 1998, a rally by Hindu extremists triggered an anti-Christian offensive in which militants beat up Christians, burned Bibles and destroyed churches in the state's Dangs district, 1,500 kilometers southwest of New Delhi.

Since then Christmas has become a "season of increased fear" for thousands of tribal people in the picturesque region on Gujarat's southern tip, according to Paresh Vasava, a tribal Christian. He told UCA News that rumors of Hindu rallies and demonstrations spread in the region again this Christmas, but the season passed off peacefully.

Vasava, who was a Protestant pastor for a brief period, said tribal Christians were particularly frightened after Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, world Hindu council) announced plans for the mass reconversion on Christmas Eve. The event took place in Dalmatty, 45 kilometers south of Ahwa, the Dangs district headquarters.

The VHP had initially planned to hold the event at Navapur, a tribal base in neighboring Maharashtra state, but state authorities refused permission. VHP international secretary Pravin Togadia then moved the program to Gujarat.

The pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian people's party), considered the political wing of the VHP and allied groups that want to make India a Hindu nation, rules Gujarat.

At the event, Togadia reportedly accused Christian missioners of using force to convert tribal people and make India "a hub of conversion."

VHP officials later told media their organization reconverted more than 1,000 Christians at the Christmas Eve program and will continue such efforts until it brings all Indians back to the Hindu fold.

However, T.V. Gaikwad, a leader of the Church of North India in Dangs, denies any reconversion took place and says the Dalmatty event was aimed at creating tension ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled for 2004.

Gaikwad says the VHP forcibly brought "some innocent tribals and declared them Hindus" on Christmas Eve, without bothering to return the people to their villages afterward. He suggests that Hindu groups should file court cases rather than resort to "cheap political publicity" if they believe VHP allegations against missioners.

Gujarat has a law that imposes three years' imprisonment and a fine of up to 100,000 rupees (about US,200) on anyone who converts another through force or any fraudulent means. If the converted person is a minor, woman, tribal or member of a lower caste, the jail term is up to four years.

According to Gaikwad, most people in Dangs are aware that Hindu militants show interest in the region only around elections.


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