March 1, NEW DELHI, India (AP) - Muslims kneeled to pray in ancient mosques and open fields across India, as they always do on Friday afternoons. On this day, their worship was marked by anger and mourning for their brethren lost in a Hindu killing spree.

It was also filled with fear that the sectarian violence in the western state of Gujarat would spread to other parts of India, where some 120 million Muslims live in tenuous harmony with their Hindu neighbors in this nation of 1 billion people.

Some 250 people have been killed in the western state of Gujarat since Wednesday. The violence was sparked by a Muslim mob who set fire to a train carrying Hindu nationalists returning from a pilgrimage to a holy site claimed by Muslims and Hindus.

Fifty-eight people were killed in the train fire in the town of Godhra, provoking retaliatory attacks by Hindu extremists. Nearly 200 Muslims have been killed in Gujarat since then, many of them women and children who were burned alive.

In New Delhi, the typically tough-talking Imam Syed Ahmed Bukhari, chief cleric of the country's largest mosque, urged Muslims to remain peaceful in an effort to quell the violence.

``If the Hindus raise a slogan, we will not answer with a slogan,'' Bukhari said, his voice booming over the public address system at the medieval red sandstone mosque. ``If they provoke you, you will not be provoked. This will be our victory.''

Thousands of Muslim youth in Islamic skull caps listened in silence, most with their head bowed, as they kneeled on a massive courtyard beneath swarms of pigeons.

Bukhari, who met Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee on Friday, threatened to sit outside the prime minister's residence from Saturday if the government did not ensure peace.

``It is a shame that the custodians of law are dancing a naked dance of barbarism,'' he said.

Other Muslims leaders, while condemning the Godhar incident as inhumane, say the retaliatory attacks are far worse.

``I strongly condemn the attack on the train. This is not the way to solve any problem. Violence breeds violence,'' said Asaduddin Owaisi, leader of Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, a Muslim political party in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

``But what has happened in Gujarat as a whole is worse. They have thrown democracy and rule of law into the fire,'' he said.

The All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat on Friday demanded that Gujarat's governor resign and that the federal government declare presidential rule to protect Muslims in the state.

Mahesh Bhatt, a leading Indian filmmaker - whose mother was Muslim and father a Hindu - summed up the events of this week as a reminder that religious intolerance in India runs deep.

``Whenever you have deluded yourself that you have been freed of the religious biases your forefathers lived with, the poison that flowed in their veins, comes a fierce reminder like this,'' he said in a telephone interview on Friday.

``Nothing is changed. The Indian mind is still shackled to its religious prejudices. We have not moved an inch away from that. Incidents like these just mirror the real soul of India.''

Hindus and Muslims have been at odds in India for centuries.

Conversions and religious persecution began soon after Muslim rulers first invaded India in the 8th century.

Mughal princes lorded over huge parts of India after the 14th century, often desecrating Hindu temples to leave their mark on history. Hindu rulers fought back, and the toughest opposition to the Mughal rulers came from the warlike Rajput kings.

Relations intensified with the end of nearly 200 years of British colonial rule in 1947 and the bloody partition that carved the Muslim state of Pakistan from the Indian subcontinent.

Mohandas Gandhi, leader of India's independence movement, opposed the two-nation theory, but accepted it after concluding it would prevent bloodshed between Hindus and Muslims.

Instead, an estimated 1 million Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed in rioting and 12 million were uprooted from homes.

Muslims and Hindus today live in relative harmony in thousands of villages throughout rural India and clashes are rare in urban areas.

Tensions have grown considerably since the 1992 destruction of a 16th century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, razed by Hindu fundamentalists who believe Ayodhya is the birthplace of their most revered Hindu god, Rama.

And now, the World Hindu Council insists its activists will begin construction of the temple in Ayodhya by March 15, despite court orders against it, further provoking fears of riots.

The 1992 destruction of the mosque sparked nationwide riots that killed 2,000 people. This week's Hindu-Muslim violence is the worst since 1993 riots in Bombay - also related to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya - killed 800 people.

Mushirul Hasan, a professor of modern Indian history, predicts the events in Gujarat will spread to other states and the sectarian violence will go down in the history books as a turning point for the ruling Hindu nationalists.

``It has all the potential of becoming an extremely explosive event. I think it's going to weaken the government in Delhi. It's going to be a turning point for the BJP,'' Hasan said, referring to Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the ruling federal coalition. The party took a bad hit in State Assembly elections earlier this month, losing in four states.

``The violence cannot be delinked from the political drubbing that the BJP has experienced,'' he said. ``Now they're beginning to flex their muscles in order to galvanize their storm troopers.''

Despite Muslims in India being wooed as a large voting bank, there is little they have gained over five decades. The majority are poor, illiterate and in low-paying jobs. This is why, some analysts say, Muslim youth look up to larger-than-life figures, such as Osama bin Laden.

``Unemployed, frustrated Muslim youth in India look up as heroes to Muslims who perform such drastic actions,'' said political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. ``Bin Laden is a powerful symbol.''

Many of those frustrated youth are in Kashmir, India's only Muslim state where Islamic separatists have been battling for 12 years for independence or a merger with neighboring Pakistan.

Yet in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Himalayan state, businessman Ishtiaq Zargar is representative of the moderate Islam that prevails in much of India.

``Killing over matters of religion is most degrading for people and for religion itself,'' said Zargar. ``Both communities in India need some introspection. And please, don't politicize religion.''

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