NEW DELHI (AP) — India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Tuesday that he was "deeply concerned" about the recent rape of a nun and the destruction of a church, but Christian groups said his words did little to dispel the fear gripping the tiny community since his rightwing Hindu government came to power.
"We are feeling very, very vulnerable," said John Dayal, a Christian leader and social activist, on the sidelines of a conference of Indian Christian groups.
Over the weekend a nun in her 70s was gang-raped by a group of men in the eastern state of West Bengal. The men who attacked the Convent of Jesus and Mary School in Nadia district, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of the state capital of Kolkata, also ransacked the chapel and destroyed holy items, police said.
A day later, a church in the northern Haryana state was destroyed and the vandals planted a flag with the name of the Hindu god Rama, news reports said.
While sexual violence is pervasive in India and the motive for the rape of the nun was unclear, a slew of attacks have taken place against India's Christian community, who make up little more than 2 percent of the country's 1.3 billion people.
"There is a sense of insecurity that the state will not protect us. The incidents are happening all over India," said Rev. Sunil Dandge, a pastor from the southern city of Bangalore.
Modi's massive electoral victory in May came on the back of promises to overhaul India's economy and root out endemic corruption. But he started his foray into public life with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a militant Hindu organization that is also the ideological parent group of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The RSS has long been accused of stoking hatred against Muslims and Christians.
While Modi played down religious issues during the campaign, wary of alienating voters, nationalist voters turned out for him in droves.
For several Hindu rightwing groupshis win has been viewed as their time to push their social and cultural agenda after years on the political fringes.
Signs of trouble began to appear in December.
Rightwing Hindu groups allied with the BJP conducted a series of ceremonies to convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. The events are called "homecomings," with organizers saying they were reconverting people whose ancestors had been Hindu.
Some of the Muslims and Christians, though, later said they'd either been paid to convert or threatened with violence if they did not.
Then a series of churches were vandalized. And the rhetoric of groups like the RSS and its allies like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, or World Hindu Council, began to get more aggressive.
On Monday senior VHP leader Surendra Jain said that attacks on churches would continue if conversions by Christians did not stop.
"Will the Christians allow us to make a Hanuman temple in the Vatican?" he was quoted saying in the newspaper Daily News & Analysis.
"How do we even respond to this kind of language? How can one stoop so low," said Rev. Dominic Emmanuel, spokesman for the New Delhi Catholic Archdiocese.
Conversions are legal in India but highly emotional.
Modi issued a brief statement saying that he was "deeply concerned about the incidents in Hisar, Haryana and Nadia, West Bengal" and asking for an immediate report from local officials.
But it did little to assuage the fears of most Christians.
"The PM's image as a man influenced by the RSS is obvious to Christian groups and that is very unfortunate," said Rev. Dandge.