India's Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi Tuesday promised a crackdown on religious violence and freedom of worship for all faiths after a series of attacks on churches.
Modi has been heavily criticised for not speaking out earlier against religious violence, especially after the attacks on at least six Christian buildings, mainly churches, in the capital New Delhi since December.
But in a speech at a conference organised by Christian groups, Modi condemned religiously motivated violence and promised that his government had equal respect for all faiths in a country that is officially secular.
"I condemn violence against any religion. We will act strongly against such violence," Modi said.
"My government will not allow any group belonging to majority or minority to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly," he said.
Church leaders in India welcomed the comments as long overdue, saying religious hardliners had felt emboldened to push on with their attacks because Modi had failed to speak up.
Priests, nuns and parishioners clashed with police earlier this month as they staged a protest in Delhi against police and government inaction over the vandalism and arson attacks since December.
Modi has also faced flak for remaining silent about a recent spate of mass "re-conversions" of Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. In his speech, the prime minister said everyone should be free to practise any faith.
"My government will ensure complete freedom of faith," he said.
"Everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence," Modi added in comments seen as condemning the mass conversions.
"We believe not only in religious tolerance but we accept all religions as true," he said.
Around 80 percent of India's 1.2 billion population is Hindu but it is also home to large numbers of Muslims, Christians and Buddhists.
- Obama warning -
US President Barack Obama warned on a visit to New Delhi last month that India's future success was dependent on avoiding splintering along religious lines.
Obama then raised further eyebrows when he said that independence icon Mahatma Gandhi would have been "shocked" by religious attacks in India.
Modi was for years shunned by Western countries after more than 1,000 people were killed in communal violence in Gujarat when he was the state's chief minister in 2002. Most of the victims were Muslims.
While members of his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continue to face accusations of trying to push a pro-Hindu agenda, the prime minister said he had equal respect for all religions.
"Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions. India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi," he said.
"Equal respect for all religions must be in the DNA of every Indian."
Delhi's Archbishop Anil Joseph Thomas Couto hoped Modi's comments would "send the right kind of signals" to right-wing hardliners.
"They (attacks on churches) had not stopped because the PM had not spoken. We were always talking about the silence on the part of the prime minister," Couto told the NDTV news network.
"It's the first time that he has chosen to speak and speak very clearly his mind. And I am sure he has sent the right kind of signals to all the (Hindu nationalist organisations) that whatever they are doing it's not correct and not in the spirit of the constitution."