Non-Christians have long resented the conversions - the most recent Indian census, in 2001, states that 2.3 percent of the population is Christian - but tensions have increased as India's economy has taken off.
Christian missionaries in India have focused on indigenous and lower-caste groups, including untouchables, or Dalits. Despite laws dating almost to Indian independence in 1947, Dalits are often discriminated against or worse. They are sometimes denied basic amenities, such as clean water; relegated to hazardous jobs; and beaten, raped or killed because of their social status.
Conversion to Islam or Christianity does not erase caste identity completely, but Christianity and other non-Hindu religions offer a possible escape by providing schooling for anyone who wants to attend, including Dalits. Christian education often includes classes in English, which are crucial for anyone who wants to join India's service businesses, including hotels, or to break into even the lowest levels of the information technology industry fueling much of the country's growth.
"Across India today, the disenfranchised and repressed peoples, the tribes and the low castes are exiting the caste system" that is entrenched in the Hindu religion, said Joseph D'souza, the president of the All Indian Christian Council and an advocate for Dalit rights.
They are converting not only to Christianity, he said, but to Buddhism, Islam and Marxist atheism.
"People are in revolt" after 60 years of their rights being trampled, he said, adding, "It has nothing to do with any particular religion."
But the conversions occur as many in India's rural areas, including Kandhamal, see themselves as left behind economically. The area's 650,000 people subsist mainly by growing and selling rice, turmeric, ginger and forest products.
But Pramod Pradhan, a young Hindu farmer in Tiangia village, views the conversions differently, and echoed the feelings of many of the state's Hindus. "Christian missionaries lured Hindus to convert to Christianity. They bring a lot of money to do that."
Padma Charan Panda, an upper-caste Hindu and a turmeric trader who was watching a televised debate on the issue in Raikia, said "Christian traders exploit poor and illiterate" people.
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