A member of the government of the state of Karnataka, in southern India, has been forced to resign after claiming that the earthquake which killed tens of thousands of people in the western Indian state of Gujarat last week was God's punishment for atrocities against Christians.

T. John, a civil aviation minister in Karnataka's state government and a member of the Orthodox church, has handed in his resignation after widespread criticism and protests by Hindus angry at his interpretation.

The 69-year-old politician had described the Gujarat earthquake, the worst to hit India in 50 years, as "the punishment of God to the people for ill-treating Christians and minorities in the state."

He issued his controversial statement at an inter-religious meeting of the Good News Global Peace group in Bangalore, capital of Karnataka, on January 30, four days after the earthquake. He was referring to a series of attacks on Christians and Muslims in Gujarat allegedly by Hindu fundamentalist groups linked to the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) which controls the Gujarat government.

Gujarat, with a tiny Christian minority (0.5 percent of the state's population of 45 million), is one of the areas badly hit by Hindu fundamentalist violence against Christians in recent years. Just before Christmas 1998, churches and related buildings in the Dang region of Gujarat, in north-western India, were subjected to arson attacks, and priests and pastors were attacked. In the village of Vaki, 500 armed people attacked a church and looted nearby shops. At least seven people were taken to hospital after sustaining bullet wounds.

Early last year, Christians in Gujarat expressed alarm when the state authorities gave permission for government employees, including police ...

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