NEW DELHI -- President Obama encouraged India to foster the the idea of religious freedom before leaving the country for Saudi Arabia. India has a history of strife between Hindus and religious minorities like Christians and Muslims, with a string of churches being vandalized in the past few months.
Hours before boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia, Obama warned India not to stray from its constitutional commitment to allow people to freely "profess, practice and propagate" religion.
"India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith, as long as it is not splintered along any lines, and it is unified as one nation," he said in a townhall address with mainly Indian youth in attendance.
About 20 percent of the 1.27 billion people in India identify themselves as part of the religious minority.
Lately, religious conversion has again become a contentious political issue after some in the country's head political party, the BJP, claimed Hinduism was under threat. They have started a campaign to convince Christians and Muslims to change their faith.
"The message is that India is a democratic country, it is not a Hindu country or a Christian country, it is all together, India has respect for all religions," said Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, a Muslim priest who heads the All India Imam Organisation, after the speech. He was standing with a Hindu holy man from one of India's pilgrimage towns, Rishikesh.
Obama's speech came during heightened tension from a string of crimes against churches in New Delhi. Stones were thrown at one church, while another had its Nativity scene torched. The most incident occurred Dec. 1, when St. Sebastian's church in East Delhi was burned to the ground. Kerosene was found on the scene, and police confirmed that the fire was a result of intentional arson.
"A clear pattern of orchestrated attacks is emerging as more and more churches are targeted, vandalized and set on fire," said Archbishop Anil JT Couto of New Delhi.
Attacks on churches have increased ever since Indian Prime Minister Narender Modi came into power last May, says Father Savarimuthu Shankar, a spokesman for the Delhi archodiocese. He and other Catholic leaders claim that the attacks are an attempt to polarize voters before state elections next month.
Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janat Party, has denounced the vandalism, but called accusations of Hindu groups unfair.