The family of Solomon Digal was summoned by neighbors to what serves as a public square in front of the village tea shop. They were ordered to get on their knees and bow before the portrait of a Hindu preacher. They were told to turn over their Bibles, hymnals and the two brightly colored calendar images of Christ that hung on their wall. Then, Mr. Digal, 45, a Christian since childhood, was forced to watch his Hindu neighbors set the items on fire. " 'Embrace Hinduism, and your house will not be demolished,' " Mr. Digal recalled being told on that Wednesday afternoon in September. " 'Otherwise, you will be killed, or you will be thrown out of the village.' " India, the world's most populous democracy and officially a secular nation, is today haunted by a stark assault on one of its fundamental freedoms. Here in eastern Orissa State, riven by six weeks of religious clashes, Christian families like the Digals say they are being forced to abandon their faith in exchange for their safety. The forced conversions come amid widening attacks on Christians here and in at least five other states across the country, as India prepares for national elections next spring. The clash of faiths has cut a wide swath of panic and destruction through these once quiet hamlets fed by paddy fields and jackfruit trees. Here in Kandhamal, the district that has seen the greatest violence, more than 30 people have been killed, 3,000 homes burned and over 130 churches destroyed, including the tin-roofed Baptist prayer hall where the Digals worshiped. Today it is a heap of rubble on an empty field, where cows blithely graze. Across this ghastly terrain lie the singed remains of mud-and-thatch homes. Christian-owned businesses have been systematically attacked. Orange flags (orange is the sacred color of Hinduism) flutter triumphantly above the rooftops of houses and storefronts. India is no stranger to religious violence between Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the population, and India's Hindu-majority of 1.1 billion people. But this most recent spasm is the most intense in years.  It was set off, people here say, by the killing on Aug. 23 of a charismatic Hindu preacher known as Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, who for 40 years had rallied the area's people to choose Hinduism over Christianity.  The police have blamed Maoist guerrillas for the swami's killing. But Hindu radicals continue to hold Christians responsible. In recent weeks, they have plastered these villages with gruesome posters of the swami's hacked corpse. "Who killed him?" the posters ask. "What is the solution?" Behind the clashes are long-simmering tensions between equally impoverished groups: the Panas and Kandhas. Both original inhabitants of the land, the two groups for ages worshiped the same gods. Over the past several decades, the Panas for the most part became Christian, as Roman Catholic and Baptist missionaries arrived here more than 60 years ago, followed more recently by Pentecostals, who have proselytized more aggressively. Meanwhile, the Kandhas, in part through the teachings of Swami Laxmanananda, embraced Hinduism. The men tied the sacred Hindu white thread around their torsos; their wives daubed their foreheads with bright red vermilion. Temples sprouted. Hate has been fed by economic tensions as well, as the government has categorized each group differently and given them different privileges.  Trembling with fear, Daud Nayak, 56, submitted to a shaving, a Hindu sign of sacrifice. He drank, as instructed, a tumbler of diluted cow dung, considered to be purifying. In the eyes of his neighbors, he reckoned, he became a Hindu. In his heart, he said, he could not bear it. All five men said they fled the next day with their families. They refuse to return. In another village, Birachakka, a man named Balkrishna Digal and his son, Saroj, said they had been summoned to a similar meeting and told by Hindu leaders who came from nearby villages that they, too, would have to convert. In their case, the ceremony was deferred because of rumors of Christian-Hindu clashes nearby. For the time being, the family had placed an orange flag on their mud home. Their Hindu neighbors promised to protect them. Here in Borepanga, the family of Solomon Digal was not so lucky. Shortly after they recounted their Sept. 10 Hindu conversion story to a reporter in the dark of night, the Digals were again summoned by their neighbors. They were scolded and fined 501 rupees, or about $12, a pinching sum here. The next morning, calmly clearing his cauliflower field, Lisura Paricha, one of the Hindu men who had summoned the Digals, confirmed that they had been penalized. Their crime, he said, was to talk to outsiders