TIKABALI, India (Reuters) - On a starry night last week, as Lal Mohan Digal prepared to go to bed, a mob of raging, machete-wielding Hindu zealots appeared above the hills of his mud house and swarmed over this bucolic hamlet in eastern India.
By dawn, Christian homes in the village were smoking heaps of burnt mud and concrete shells. Churches were razed, their wooden doors and windows stripped off.
“We could hear them come shouting ‘Jai Shri Ram’,” Digal said, referring to the rallying cry of Hindus hailing their warrior-god.
The mob poured kerosene on the thatched rooftops of the village homes, then threw matches. Church spires were hacked down.
The Hindu part of the village was untouched. For four days Digal and his stricken Christian neighbors hid in the teak forests, before being herded to a government-run relief camp.
The violence replicated itself in village after village, as the rural Kandhamal district of Orissa convulsed from some of the worst anti-Christian attacks in India.
At least 16 people, mostly Christians were killed, churches destroyed and 10,000 Christians were forced to flee their homes as violence spread.
Christians responded with some — not proportionate — violence. Almost all the villages Reuters visited bore evidence of attacks on Christians.
Relief shelters were packed with Christian refugees, most of them women and children as their men folk were too scared to emerge from forest hideouts.
At one temporary camp in Raikia village, some 8,000 people crammed into two floors of a government office, sleeping on the bare floor and surviving on rice and lentils given twice a day.
“It was the hate campaigns of the Sangh Parivar which led to untold misery for Christians,” said Sam Paul of the All-India Christian Council, referring to an apex body of Hindu radicals.
There has not been a long tradition of rivalry between Hindus and Christians, who form less than three percent of officially secular India’s 1.1-billion population.
On the contrary, the missionaries have a reputation of running some of the finest schools in India.
Intolerance has risen, though, in the last two decades with a revival in Hindu nationalism in India, and a new agenda to fight “foreign faiths” said to be undermining Hinduism.
With political power, Hindu nationalists in several Indian states have made religious conversion either unlawful or extremely difficult. Orissa has seen some of the worst violence against Christians.
“There is an atmosphere of fear,” said Krishan Kumar, the chief administrator of Kandhamal, a land dominated by “Adivasis” or traditionally animist forest-dwellers where Christian proselytizers arrived on horseback more than a century ago.
The missionaries built schools and hospitals, and their work persuaded many Adivasis and ethnic Panas, who belong to a Hindu lower caste, to convert to Christianity.
The region turned into a hotbed of communal strife after hard-line Hindu groups, who accuse Christian missionaries of converting people under duress or through inducements, arrived half a century ago to counter an expansionist evangelist drive.
Last week’s violence was largely a backlash against the murder of a Hindu proselytizer who ran a local campaign against Christian conversion. Maoist rebels said they had carried out the murder, but Hindus blamed Christians.
Pope Benedict has condemned the latest violence and the Italian government has told India it was “very worried and sensitive to” the attacks on Christians.
The United Nations has warned India could face more religious violence as delays to bring justice and prosecute perpetrators of attacks on minorities were encouraging an atmosphere of impunity in the country.
In Orissa, international and local human rights groups say the state government was a “silent spectator” to the violence, and Christian villagers say police often failed to protect them.
“When the mob arrived it asked police to drop its guns to the ground,” said Phillomina Digal, who lives by a police station.
“The policemen were outnumbered and went into the police station. The mob set my house on fire, burnt our tractor and also another government vehicle. Then they all celebrated and left.”
Orissa’s police say they swung into action as soon as the riots broke out, but could not reach many affected villages because rioters had blocked roads with tree trunks and boulders.
A religious turf war is only part of a problem that is as much ethnic as it is political.
Rivalry between Adivasis and Panas has flared up in a contest for government jobs and benefits reserved for underprivileged groups. Hindus have backed the Adivasis against the largely Christian Panas to exploit that resentment.
“Adivasis and Panas had always lived peacefully,” said Brahmananda Behera, who heads Kandhamal’s Pana group.
“Certain religious groups have played politics and disrupted that harmony.”
The politics of conversion have inflamed the divide, and could portend more problems elsewhere in India.
“Kandhamal is an ethnic and communal laboratory,” said a senior state official. “Every side is trying out its own moves.”
Editing by Simon Denyer and Megan Goldin