BOREPANGA, India The family of Solomon Digal was summoned by neighbors to what serves as a public square in front of the village tea shop.
They were ordered to get on their knees and bow before the portrait of a Hindu preacher. They were told to turn over their Bibles, hymnals and the two brightly colored calendar images of Christ that hung on their wall. Then, Digal, 45, a Christian since childhood, was forced to watch his Hindu neighbors set the items on fire.
"Embrace Hinduism, and your house will not be demolished," Digal recalled being told on that Wednesday afternoon in September. "Otherwise, you will be killed, or you will be thrown out of the village."
India, the world's most populous democracy and officially a secular nation, is today haunted by a stark assault on one of its fundamental freedoms. Here in eastern Orissa state, riven by six weeks of religious clashes, Christian families like the Digals say they are being forced to abandon their faith in exchange for their safety.
The forced conversions come amid widening attacks on Christians here and in at least five other states across the country, as India prepares for national elections next spring.
The clash of faiths has brought panic and destruction throughout these once quiet hamlets fed by paddy fields and jackfruit trees. Here in Kandhamal, the district that has been the location of the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and more than 130 churches destroyed, including the tin-roofed Baptist prayer hall where the Digals worshipped. Today it is a heap of rubble on an empty field.
where cows blithely graze.
India is no stranger to religious violence between Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population, and India's Hindu-majority of 1.1 billion people. But this most recent spasm is the most intense in years.
It was set off, people here say, by the killing on Aug. 23 of a charismatic Hindu preacher, who for 40 years had rallied the area's people to choose Hinduism over Christianity.
The police have blamed Maoist guerrillas for the swami's killing. But Hindu radicals continue to hold Christians responsible.
Hate has been fed by economic tensions as well, as the government has categorized each tribe differently and given them different privileges.