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They dwell below the bottom of India's caste system. Hinduism has branded them achuta ("untouchables"). But millions of previously uneducated Dalits ("broken, crushed"), as they prefer to be known, have turned to Christianity, some through mass conversions, and many are escaping poverty.

"You see a long, drawn-out, so-called awakening among the 250 million untouchables," said K. P. Yohannan, founder of the Texas-based Gospel for Asia. "These people, at least through a minority of their people getting educated and traveling abroad, are getting educated about the world and learning that they are getting the terrible end of the stick in terms of the economy and freedom from the caste system. They see that unless you give up this caste system, there is no hope."

A December decision by India's National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) could make Christian Dalits' situation more difficult. By declaring that Dalit converts to Christianity and Islam do not suffer the same disadvantages as Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Dalits, the NCSC imperiled the government assistance for lower classes for which Christian Dalits would otherwise be eligible.

If Dalits change their official religious identification from Hindu to Christian, they can lose benefits such as access to federal jobs or admission to government-funded universities. In December, the Supreme Court of India delayed hearings for Muslims and Christians demanding full constitutional rights.

Two months earlier, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) had issued a statement of conscience that urged the United States and Indian governments to protect Dalits from physical violence, discrimination, and economic despair.

"It is a compelling human rights issue," said Richard Cizik, ...

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February 2008

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