An Indian activist and a local Catholic bishop are calling on a local government to investigate an alleged hate crime against Christians that apparently took place after the Christians refused to take part in animist prayer rituals.

According to activist Medha Patkar's report, widespread violence and vandalism against Christians occurred in three villages- Kakrabeda, Singanpur and Tiliyabeda- in the Bastar region of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh Sept. 22-23.

The attacks apparently came after tribal Christians refused to take part in rituals and prayers of Sarna, an animist tribal religion.

"We are saddened by the incidents and are demanding an impartial investigation to safeguard the welfare of the tribal community and bring communal harmony among different religions," Bishop Paul Toppo of Raigarh told UCA News.

"Tribals are generally peace-loving people who have a very good rapport with other faiths, but some vested interest groups want to create divisions among people in the name of religion, caste and creed, which is very unfortunate."

A group of non-Christians reportedly used wooden sticks and poles to partially destroy the thatched roofs of 16 houses belonging to tribal Christians. They also "assaulted women and children," with many seeking refuge in the forest and currently afraid to return home, UCA News reported.

Patkar asked Bhupesh Baghel, Chief Minister of Chhattisgarh, to conduct an "impartial investigation" and take measures to promote peace in the villages, The Times of India reported. Bishop Toppo agreed.

"It is the duty of the state government to take care of its people and we urge chief minister Bhupesh Baghel and other officials to look at the matter without making any discrimination on grounds of religion or caste and to bring justice to the downtrodden," the bishop concluded.

In a country that is majority Hindu, Chhattisgarh is India's most Hindu state, with Hindus accounting for 98.3% of its 23 million people, UCA News reported. Christians, mostly tribal people, account for 0.7 percent.

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India, which is expected to overtake China as the world's most populous country within the next decade, is ranked as the 10th worst persecutor of Christians worldwide by the charity Open Doors.

Hate crimes against Christians in India increased by 40% in the first half of 2020 despite a three-month nationwide lockdown, according to a July report from the ecumenical group Persecution Relief (PR). The group said it had documented 293 hate crime incidents against Christians between January and June, including six cases of murder and five of rape. Twenty-two of those incidents happened in Chhattisgarh.

Persecution Relief, founded by the Indian Christian Shibu Thomas, has documented more than 2,000 incidents since it was launched in 2016.

PR described Uttar Pradesh- where 63 documented hate crimes took place- as "the most hostile state against Christians in India," and accused local authorities of assisting extremists.

In April, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) asked the U.S. State Department to place India on a list of "countries of particular concern" because of attacks on minorities.

USCIRF designated India a "country of particular concern" (CPC) in its 2020 annual report, in addition to 13 other nations - including North Korea and China - that were given the designation.

India has barred U.S. representatives from investigating the county's reported violations of religious freedom, continuing what critics call a trend of Hindu nationalism that threatens religious minorities in India.

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Reports indicate that Indian Hindus, who make up nearly 80% of India's population, have systematically targeted Muslims in lynch mobs for slaughtering or eating beef– a practice that Hindus consider to be a religious offense. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, there have been over 100 lynch mob attacks in India, which often originate on social media.

Local law enforcement is known to arrest the victims, rather than the perpetrators, of these attacks.

Religious discrimination and violence has also been directed toward Christians in recent years. In January, Hindu groups attempted to prevent the building of a huge statue of Jesus in Bangalore. They claimed a Hindu god lives on the hill where the local Catholic archdiocese was planning to erect the statue.

In 2008, Hindu nationalists organized attacks on Christian homes, schools, and churches in Karnataka, physically beating hundreds of Christians. The Saldhana Report, an independent report on the attacks released in 2011, revealed that the attacks were backed by India's highest government authorities.

Dozens of Catholics in the same region were attacked in 2019 while conducting a Marian pilgrimage, resulting in the arrest of six Hindu Nationalists.