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Hindu fanatics attack Christians at prayer

HINDU FANATICS have attacked Christians in Delhi for the first time, less than a week after the Pope's visit to India, during which he announced the Catholic Church's mission to "Christianise" Asia in the coming century.

On Saturday night, a fringe Christian group was holding a prayer meeting inside a marquee, in a park in a north-western suburb of the capital, when 30 to 40 men barged in and broke it up. They were reported to be members of the World Hindu Council, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).

Some grabbed the speaker's microphone and chanted anti-Christian slogans, while others tore up religious pamphlets and, witnesses said,burnt a Bible. In the scuffle that followed, several members of the congregation received minor injuries.

"The people who snatched the mike said that people should unite against the propaganda of the minorities," an eyewitness reported.

Since the arrival of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in power 18 months ago, as leader of a coalition government, India's minority communities have been braced for attacks: there is a strong streak of Hindu chauvinism within the ruling party, and a number of associated organisations with thuggish tendencies

But the Hindus' traditional communal enemy, the Muslims, have largely escaped being targeted by these fanatical hangers-on, probably because it could wreck the fragile coalition arithmetic, and the BJP's political respectability, if the large Muslim community were to be alienated.

Instead India's tiny community of Christians - just over 2 per cent of the population - have borne the brunt of the attacks. Most have taken place in impoverished tribal areas in the states of Gujarat and Orissa, where conversion activity by evangelists is said to have inflamed feelings between the majority community and the Christians.

The Pope's visit was preceded by a month of protests by groups loosely allied to the BJP, demanding an end to conversion. The Pope showed his contempt for their feelings, and arguably justified the protests, by affirming the Catholic Church's commitment to converting Asia.

Saturday night's incident in Delhi was not big, but marks the arrival of this type of communal bullying in the Indian capital. It is an ominous development.

t Britain's Foreign Office minister Peter Hain heads for India this week hoping to seal a new "partnership of equals" with a former colony now emerging as a potential superpower. He said Britain wanted to leave behind historical differences and tension over India's nuclear detonations last year to forge a new political and economic alliance with the world's biggest democracy.

"India is going to be one of the superpowers of the next century, economically, strategically and politically," Mr Hain said.

"The purpose of my visit is ... to signal a new partnership between Britain and India for the new century which is based on a partnership of equals, rather than one which looks back to a past colonial era."

Mr Hain said his visit, from Wednesday to Friday, would lay the groundwork for an Indo-British business alliance and he would announce a joint venture in information technology and electronic commerce. Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is expected to visit India early next year.