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Fear grips conversion flashpoint

Ahmedabad, Oct. 24: For seven days between Christmas and New Year they huddled in mortal fear. Now, four years later, the ghost of 1998 has come back to haunt Christian missionaries in Dangs, a tribal district in Gujarat.

What has made them sacred is the Sangh parivar-organised Ram Katha programme, which is drawing thousands of Ram bhakts to Subir, a village 40 km from the district headquarters.

It was in this village that a church-run school was attacked on the night of Christmas. Over the next seven days, 40 Christian institutions in the district were targeted in a wave of anti-conversion violence. The attacks brought worldwide condemnation and forced a visit by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to the affected villages, including Subir.

Tense church officials here said their fears have heightened after “inflammatory pamphlets” were circulated in the district. Human rights activist and spokesman for the missionaries Father Cedric Prakash said what Christians object to is the way “anti-Christian propaganda” has been suddenly stepped up.

Their anxiety has increased after a reported remark by Karsan Patel, a minister in charge of the district, accusing Christians of creating a false impression about 1998 when no one was killed. Patel, when contacted, claimed there was no tension in the district and denied that he had made any remarks against the Christian community. “But if some people are apprehensive we cannot do any thing about it,” he said.

Prakash says the Sangh is again trying to create a 1998-like situation and pointed out that one of the pamphlets relating to the ongoing programme talked only about conversion. Apparently, the Sangh wants to make it an election issue.

The total Christian population in Dangs was 500 in 1950. It rose to 50,000 in 2000. Since then, 18,000 have been reconverted.

At the 10-day programme, organised by the Shabrimata Devi Seva Samiti, discourses are being given by well-known preacher Morari Bapu. Chief minister Narendra Modi was present for the inaugural function. Several top leaders of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad will be visiting the village, where the programme will end on October 30.

According to Satyanand Macwan, district superintendent of the Church of North India, the Sangh is preparing the ground for reconversions, the root cause of the tension. “Our youths are also agitated. That is why we fear trouble after the Katha is over,” he said.

District collector Mamta Verma, however, dismissed fears of renewed violence, and so did superintendent of police Raju Bhargav. Both said the fears were “unfounded”. “In fact, there is no fear. There is only an apprehension, which is understandable given the background of 1998,” the police officer explained.

The Subir-based Navjyot Social Service Society that runs a school in the village has sought police protection, which has been granted. “We have provided police protection. And to ensure that no one disturbs the social harmony, we have also formed a peace committee and its meetings was being attended by the organisers of the Katha, Hindus and Christians,” district collector Verma said.

Gujarat VHP vice-president Haresh Bhatt admitted that the Sangh had reconverted 18,000 tribal Christians. This is what is causing the heartburn. “The Christian missionaries are making a fuss about our religious function because they fear that all those innocent tribals they fraudulently converted might return to the Hindu fold,” the VHP leader said.

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