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Mobs burn east India churches after Hindu deaths

BHUBANESWAR, India, Aug 25 (Reuters) - Hindu mobs angry at the murder of a religious leader burned down several churches and clashed with police on Monday, worsening violence between Hindus and Christians in a remote part of an eastern Indian state.

Armed men raided a Hindu school in Orissa’s rural Kandhamal district last week and killed five people, including a religious leader linked to India’s main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The Hindu leader had been leading a local campaign to reconvert Hindus and tribal people from Christianity in a poor region with a history of communal strife.

Police blamed the killings on local Maoist rebels taking sides in a controversy over religious conversions, but Hindus say Christians were to blame for the murders.

The remote and forested Kandhamal region is a hotbed of religious tensions between hardline Hindus who accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribespeople and low-caste Hindus to change their faith.

Tensions came to a head on Christmas Eve last year when fights broke out in which one person was killed and churches and temples were damaged.

In the latest incidents, police said four churches were attacked, vehicles damaged and a police post was ransacked. No one was hurt.

“It was sporadic,” Orissa police chief Gopal Chandra Nanda told Reuters. “Some prayer houses have been attacked and vehicles have been burnt.”

Protesters also set fire to at least eight houses belonging to Christians and attacked a missionary school in Kandhamal, police said.

India’s constitution is secular, but most of its billion-plus citizens are Hindu. About 2.5 percent of Indians are Christians.

Thousands of Hindu activists blocked roads with burning tyres and squatted on railway lines in parts of Orissa to enforce a 12- hour shutdown called by Hindu groups to protest last week’s killings.

Christian groups say lower-caste Hindus who convert do so willingly to escape the highly stratified and oppressive Hindu caste system.

Christians in eastern India condemned the killing of the Hindu leader.

“We pray for the restoration of peace and tranquility and brotherhood in this state,” said Asit Kumar Mohanty of the Global Council of Indian Christians.

The region is a stronghold of Maoist rebels and police say they have evidence to link the guerrillas to last week’s murders.

They say by attacking Hindus the Maoists were trying to garner support among the region’s poor tribes, most of which had converted to Christianity.

There have been attacks on Christians in Orissa and other parts of India in previous years. In 1999, a Hindu mob killed Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two children by burning them in their car in Orissa. (Writing by Krittivas Mukherjee; Editing by Alistair Scrutton)