Hindu extremists burn down village churches

Hindu extremists attacked Christians celebrating Christmas in eastern India, ransacking and burning at least six village churches. One person was killed.

Four hundred and fifty police were deployed to quell the violence in the remote district of Orissa state where the churches most nothing more than mud and thatch houses were attacked. The violence had eased by yesterday.

There were conflicting reports of what sparked the unrest in Orissa, which has a history of violence against the state's tiny Christian minority. Some reports said Christians had attempted to attack a hardline Hindu leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, who led an anti-conversion movement.

"The situation was aggravated by some Christians forcibly stopping the 80-year-old Hindu leader Laxmanananda Saraswati and attempting to attack him," said Giriraj Kishore of the VHP. "When they were prevented from attacking him by his followers, the Christians hit someone with an axe and one Hindu died," he said.

But the Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the fighting began when Hindu extremists objected to a show marking Christmas Eve, believing it was designed to encourage Hindus at the bottom of the religion's caste hierarchy to convert to Christianity.

An argument over the Christmas show got out of hand and some of the Hindus opened fire on the Christians, wounding three of them, said John Dayal, a spokesman for the Bishops Conference.

The Hindus then went on a rampage on Christmas Day, chasing people out of six churches and setting the buildings ablaze, he said.

Later, dozens of people from each community clashed, Mr Dayal said. One person was killed, he added, but could not say if the dead man was a Hindu or Christian. Another 25 people were wounded, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

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