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One killed, 14 churches attacked in Orissa

BHUBANESWAR, India (Reuters) - Hundreds of central police were deployed in Orissa on Wednesday after Hindu hardliners burnt and damaged 14 churches, killing at least one person, police said.

Christians also damaged at least three Hindu temples during communal clashes, a local Hindu group 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. Hardliners also accuse Christian groups of converting low-caste Hindus.

Despite a curfew in some areas, fresh trouble broke out late on Wednesday. Two more churches were set alight, and a police station and a local government office were also attacked, said G.C. Nanda, the state police chief.

Local television channels showed one church with its windows smashed and broken furniture strewn across the floor. Many of the churches targeted were makeshift places of worship, often built with thatched roofs and mud walls, local media reported.

The hardliners, some linked to India’s main Hindu-nationalist grouping, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have accused Christian priests of bribing poor tribespeople and low-caste Hindus to change their faith.

A senior Christian leader said state authorities had turned a blind eye to the violence. He compared the situation to that in Gujarat, 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 to three years,” Raphael Cheenath, Archbishop of Bhubaneswar, told local television.

B. Barik, a local Hindu organisation leader, said at least three Hindu temples had been damaged in the clashes. Police said they could not confirm this.

Orissa, now governed by a BJP ally, has been the scene of some of the worst attacks on Christians, 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.

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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