Hundreds of federal police were deployed in India's eastern state of Orissa yesterday as Hindu hardliners burnt and damaged 12 churches in communal clashes, killing at least one person, police said.
The reported injury of a local Hindu leader by a Christian group on Monday sparked two days of violence over Christmas in the Kandhamal district of southern Orissa by hardliners who accuse Christian groups of converting low-caste Hindus.
"The situation is tense but under control," said B.B. Mishra, a state inspector-general of police.
Local television channels showed one ransacked church, with its windows smashed and broken furniture strewn across the floor. Another channel showed charred remains of a church roof.
The hardliners, some linked to India's main Hindu nationalist grouping, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have often accused Christian priests of bribing poor tribespeople and low-caste Hindus to change their faith.
Many of the churches targeted were makeshift places of worship, often built with thatched roofs and mud walls, local media reported.
A senior Christian leader said state authorities had turned a blind eye to the violence. He compared the situation to that in Gujarat state, where a BJP-led government has been accused of inciting violence against Muslim and Christian minority communities.
"I feel the government has allowed them to continue this sort of thing somehow, because I am afraid they are repeating what happened in Gujarat in the last two-three years," Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Bhubaneswar, the provincial capital, said.
B. Barik, a local Hindu organization leader, said the clashes began after Christian groups placed religious statues at a Hindu religious site.
The authorities imposed a curfew on four towns in Kandhamal district, where the violence broke out some 300km southwest of the state capital Bhubaneswar.
The state's chief minister appealed for peace.
"Orissa is known for its long tradition of communal amity. Let's maintain it," said Naveen Patnaik in a televised speech.
A force of 500 policemen were deployed to restore peace, state police chief Gopal Nanda said.
Orissa, now governed by a BJP ally, has witnessed some of the worst attacks on Christians in the past, including the 1999 murders of Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children who were burned to death inside their car by a mob.
Christian groups say lower-caste Hindus who convert do so willingly to escape the highly stratified and oppressive Hindu caste system.
But several BJP-ruled states have passed anti-conversion laws. Christians account for around 2 percent of mainly Hindu India's 1.1 billion people.
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