India confirms life term for murder of missionary

New Delhi, India - India's top court Friday confirmed the life sentence given to a Hindu who burned to death an Australian missionary and his two young sons outside a church in eastern India.

A trial court had sentenced Dara Singh to death but it was reduced to life in prison on appeal. Justices P. Sathasivam and B.S. Chauhan on the Supreme Court rejected a plea by state prosecutors to raise Dara Singh's punishment back to the death penalty, Singh's attorney, S.S. Mishra, said.

The judges said Singh's offense was highly condemnable, but it did not fall in the category of rarest of rare to warrant the death sentence, Mishra said.

Babu Joseph, a spokesman for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, said "We accept the judicial verdict."

However, he said it was a grim reminder of the 1999 killings of Graham Staines and his sons, Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8.

Staines had been looking after leprosy patients in Orissa state. A mob led by Singh set fire to a jeep in which the family had been sleeping outside a church in the tribal village of Manoharpur.

A series of attacks against missionaries and Christian institutions at the time were blamed on right-wing Hindus, who claimed missionaries tricked impoverished Hindus by force, money and superstition into converting faiths, a charge the Christian missionaries denied.

Hindus comprise more than 80 percent of India's 1 billion-plus population. Christians make up about 2 percent.