NEW DELHI, Oct 17 At least 60 Christians have been killed over the past two months in eastern India in a brutal backlash to the murder of a revered Hindu holy man, a national bishops' body said on Friday.
The figure is nearly double the official toll of 35 given by government authorities in the eastern state of Orissa.
The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India said scores of Christians were still fleeing their homes in Orissa and called for action to stem the religious violence in the coastal state's troubled Kandhamal district.
“Christians are afraid to return to their villages as threats of death have forced many of them to flee to the forest or to live in dehumanising conditions,” the organisation said.
“The fear that has driven thousands into the forests for shelter and safety is a living reproach to those who should provide safety and security and not leave the law and order situation to mob rule,” the organisation added.
The comments came less than a week after Pope Benedict XVI renewed his condemnation of the attacks on Indian Christians.
There was no immediate reaction to the figures from Orissa state government officials.
The bishops' group demanded a federal probe into the rape of a Catholic nun in Kandhamal, the epicentre of the violence.
The 29-year-old nun was assaulted two days after Hindu religious leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati was killed by unidentified gunmen in Kandhamal on Aug 23.
“Christians of Kandhamal have lost faith in the state government and they feel their fundamental right to live has been taken away by the constitutionally elected-elected government,” the bishops added.
The Orissa government, administered by a political party aligned to India's main Hindu nationalist grouping, says it has deployed enough troops to quell the violence.
Attackers have targeted churches, prayer halls and Catholic-run schools in the region.
At the root of the unrest are accusations by hardline Hindus that missionaries lure tribals and low-caste Hindus to convert to Christianity by offering free education and health care.
The Hindu holy man had been associated with a radical group opposed to Hindus converting to Christianity.
Christians account for 2.3 per cent of India's billion-plus Hindu majority population.—AFP