The young Roman Catholic priest died with eight arrows piercing his stomach, lungs and right eye. He had been asleep in a mud hut used for prayer services in Jamubani, a village about 12 miles from here, when a group of men wearing loincloths burst in, brandishing torches and heavy sticks called lathis.

"I heard someone shouting, `Where is that sala [cursed] priest!' " and then they started beating us," recounted Kate Singh Khuntia, 27, a catechism teacher who was sleeping in the same hut. "Father got up and ran out. I heard him screaming, `Ama,' for his mother. Then someone hit me from behind. As I passed out, all I could hear was the sound of lathis."

The grisly killing of the Rev. Arul Doss, a 35-year-old diocesan priest from southern India, on the night of Sept. 1, was neither an isolated nor inexplicable incident. On the contrary, it fit into a pattern of threats, arson and murder that has stalked this remote tribal region of Orissa state since January, when an Australian Baptist missionary and his two young sons were burned to death in a village not far from here.

The identity of Doss's killers remains a mystery, but there is little doubt they were fanatical Hindus angered by the spread of Christian conversions among impoverished tribal peoples, known as adivasis. Christians in Orissa are convinced that, like the mob that attacked missionary Graham Staines and his children, the priest's killers were encouraged and possibly organized by a national fundamentalist Hindu youth group called the Bajrang Dal.

The Doss killing has brought ill-timed embarrassment to the Indian government, which is proud of presiding over a mammoth secular democracy and is currently involved in nationwide elections. Two weeks ago, the State Department issued a report on religious freedom worldwide that criticized India's failure to prevent and prosecute such crimes. The Clinton administration announced it would send a special envoy on religious issues to India, but officials in New Delhi replied that they would not receive him.

The Indian government recently released a report on the Staines slayings, but it has been widely condemned as a whitewash. The report, based on a lengthy investigation by a special commission, concluded that one man -- a renegade Hindu vigilante named Dara Singh -- orchestrated the attack and that no larger group or movement was behind it.

In the days since Doss's death, Orissa police have launched a highly publicized manhunt for Dara Singh, sealing off large tribal areas and combing the jungles where Singh, a mystical hero to many local people, is said to be hiding. But the killing has also highlighted cultural, economic and political conflicts in rural areas inhabited by adivasis, conflicts that have been exacerbated by the competition between Hinduism and Christianity.

"This has nothing to do with religion. It is a matter of self-interest," said the Rev. Thomas Chellan, a Catholic priest in Orissa's capital, Bhubaneshwar. "Christians bring education, economic opportunity and new social status to the adivasis. I have heard that some upper caste Hindus say, `The foreigners come and ruin them. . . . Who will be left to plow the fields?' "

Christians are not the only victims of recent attacks by Hindu zealots in Orissa. Several Muslim cattle traders have been assaulted, and their animals have been freed. In late August, a cattle trader named Sheik Rehman was mutilated and burned to death in a village only a few miles from where Doss was killed. Hindus view cows as sacred and their slaughter for meat as an abomination.

But while tensions between Muslims and Hindus have flared repeatedly for decades, attacks on Christians are a new and perplexing phenomenon. Christian missionaries have been present in India at least since the sixth century, and major missions were established in a number of states during British rule. Generations of status-conscious Indians have sent their children to Christian-run schools. But only 2 percent of the population is Christian, and Hinduism has dominated society so thoroughly that Christianity was never considered a threat.

In the past few years, however, a surge in Hindu fundamentalism has coincided with new efforts by Christian groups to reach out to ever more remote and neglected areas. In dozens of Orissa villages -- villages like Labedepur, where Doss worked for four years among members of a local ethnic strain called the Ho people -- thousands of inhabitants have converted to Christianity.

Tensions have inevitably resulted, especially when the converts refuse to participate in Hindu festivals or insist on plowing during an annual three-day ritual of Earth-mother worship, when most peasants avoid touching their fields. Even more controversial are what Hindu activists call fraudulent conversions, the alleged practice of luring poor, unsophisticated adivasis to Christianity by promising health and wealth.

"These people are insecure and vulnerable," asserted Patrap Kumar Sarengi, a Hindu who heads the Bajrang Dal in Orissa. "They may have TB, and they are told if they pray to Jesus Christ, he will cure them. This is conversion by fraud and allurement, and it is dangerous and illegal." He said he condemned Doss's killing but added that the government and the church are partly to blame. "They should put a stop to illegal conversions, because they are the root cause of these murders," he said.

There are political overtones to the conflict as well, because pro-Hindu parties are afraid of losing votes as Christianity spreads, according to some observers. Ironically, though, it is only since the killings of the Staines family and Doss that church officials here and in New Delhi have begun calling openly on their followers to vote for secular candidates. This should largely benefit the Congress party, which opposes the ruling pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party.

Several priests and pastors in Orissa, including those who worked with Doss, insist they never deceive adivasis or press them to convert but merely offer free medicine, literacy classes and home visits. Some villagers eventually feel called to convert out of gratitude or inspiration, they said; others do not. The clergymen said they had worked in villages where some families were Hindus, some were Christians, and others worshiped nature spirits.

"We would only go to homes where we were invited. We would tell them the story of Jesus and pray with them," said Singh Khuntia, the catechism teacher. "We would tell them they did not have to sacrifice goats and hens any more to be cured of diseases. We never forced anyone."

Singh Khuntia said there had been some tensions in Jamubani, largely spurred by a local Hindu priest who resented the Catholics' inroads and threatened both him and Doss several times. Since the killings, Singh Khuntia said, he has received two telephone threats and has been afraid to return to the village area.

But here in Labedepur, a hamlet of thatched huts where people farm small plots of rice and make dishes to sell from the round, rubbery leaves of sal trees, everyone remembered Doss as a simple, outgoing man who owned few clothes, learned their native dialect and walked miles to inquire about their children and health.

In one compound of six Christian and six non-Christian families, all said they respected each other's customs and beliefs. The Christians said they took a break from plowing during the annual Earth festival, and the other Ho people said they picked up free medicine at the Catholic dispensary while continuing to sacrifice hens or meditate under a sal tree when they fell sick. All spoke well of Doss.

"He was a good man; I cannot understand why anyone would kill him," said Singhray Melgandi, 40, a Ho farmer who rushed to Jamubani on foot when he heard of the killing and helped carry the mortally wounded Doss for miles to the nearest hospital.

Melgandi's wife Veronica, 35, shook her head angrily when asked if anyone had pressured the family to become Christian. "The reason why we liked Father Doss," she said, "was that he gave us so much love."

Special correspondent Rama Lakshmi contributed to this report.