August 25, 2008 / 4:10 PM / 10 years ago

Mob kills woman, destroys churches in east India

(Recasts with new violence)

By Jatindra Dash

BHUBANESWAR, India, Aug 25 (Reuters) - A mob burned down a Christian orphanage in eastern India on Monday, killing one woman, police said, in rising religious violence sparked by the killing of a Hindu leader.

The mob beat up a priest, drove children away and set the orphanage on fire in Orissa state, trapping the 22-year-old woman. "The woman was found burned to death inside one of the rooms," Thakur Prasad Patra, a senior police officer said.

Hindus protesting their leader’s death also destroyed several churches, blocked traffic with burning tyres and clashed with police.

Last week armed men raided a Hindu school in the rural Kandhamal district 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.

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 killings.

The remote and forested Kandhamal region is rife with religious tension between hardline Hindus who accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith. Christians in eastern India condemned the killing of the Hindu leader.

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

Tensions came to a head late last year when one person was killed in fighting and churches and temples were damaged.

In the latest violence, police said four churches were attacked, vehicles damaged and a police post was ransacked.

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

The police said a man was burned to death by another mob in a separate village of Orissa.

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 squatted on railway lines in parts of Orissa to enforce a 12- hour shutdown called by Hindu groups to protest last week’s killings.

Asit Kumar Mohanty of the Global Council of Indian Christians said: "We pray for the restoration of peace and tranquillity and brotherhood in this state."

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

They say by attacking Hindus the Maoists were trying to win support among the region’s poor tribes, most of whom 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 Bappa Majumdar and Elizabeth Piper)

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