Image: Indian Christians protest in New Delhi
Harish Tyagi  /  EPA file
Indian Christians and human rights activists protest in New Delhi on September 26 following a series of violent clashes with Hindus in Orissa and Karnatka states.
updated 10/14/2008 11:33:11 AM ET 2008-10-14T15:33:11

Indian church leaders said Tuesday that Christians killed in recent clashes were "sacrificial lambs" targeted by hard-line Hindus seeking an advantage in upcoming national elections.

The All India Christian Council said the toll after nearly two months of sporadic violence has reached 59 dead and 50,000 displaced. Officials in the eastern state of Orissa, site of the worst violence, say 34 people have been killed.

The recent violence began after Hindu activists blamed Christians for the slaying of a Hindu leader killed in Orissa on Aug. 23. Retaliatory attacks left scores dead, dozens of churches destroyed and thousands of people homeless, despite the government's claim that Maoists killed the Hindu leader.

"A frenzied and well-armed band of political criminals has threatened our community as perhaps it has never been in its 2,000 year-old history in India," said John Dayal, secretary-general of the All India Christian Council.

There is a long history of tension between the religious groups in Orissa because Hindu leaders accuse Christian missionaries of forcing low-caste Hindus to convert, charges denied by Christian leaders.

Leaders from the council on Tuesday said the violence was led by hard-line Hindu parties preparing for national elections, expected early next year, by whipping up religious fervor.

"The sole motive is to gain political advantage in coming national elections," said Dayal. "We have been made sacrificial lambs."

The Christian leaders blamed the violence on radical Hindu groups, including the Bajrang Dal and the World Hindu Council, organizations loosely affiliated with the hard-line Bharatiya Janata Party. The BJP rules Orissa and Karnataka, the two states that have seen anti-Christian violence, and is looking to challenge the ruling Congress Party for power in New Delhi.

Roughly 2.5 percent of India's 1.1 billion people are Christians, while more than 80 percent are Hindu. India is officially a secular nation.

The Christian leaders called Tuesday for a federal probe into the violence.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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