"I am very happy to become a Christian. I feel liberated, a human being," says A. Sekar. His eyes turn moist and his voice chokes with deep emotion. "I feel I am born again." Sekar, 30, is a Dalit in Madurai, in India's southern Tamil Nadu state. Four members of his family of six have converted to Christianity in recent months.

Their Dalit neighbor, Ilaiyaraja, 28, has been going to the nearby Bethel Church to pray. "I've given notice to [the] church for baptism," Ilaiyaraja said. "Next month, I will be baptized. In Hinduism, you pray to a number of deities, while in Christianity there is only one God, which I feel is [the] original God. I find the Hindu caste system very inhuman and oppressive."

India's over 250 million Dalits are Hinduism's "untouchables," relegated by the high-caste Brahmans to an almost permanent underclass status. The caste system, though illegal in India, remains in force socially. Dalits are not allowed to enter upper-caste houses, fields, or temples. They cannot draw water from village wells or wear shoes while passing upper-caste areas. They remain landless and poor.

Human rights observers cite a growing pattern of persecution against Dalits. In October Hindus lynched five Dalits in Jhajjar, Haryana state, for transporting cowhide. (Within two weeks, more than 80 friends and family of the victims converted to Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity in protest.)

In September police and other officials in Uttar Pradesh state forcibly tried to evict a Dalit woman from her land. In another case, upper-caste Hindus hacked three Dalits to death. In Punjab state, assailants stripped a Dalit woman in a marketplace, in broad daylight. Several months ago, some Dalits in Madurai were forced to drink human urine.

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