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Thousands seek refuge from India religious attacks

BHUBANESWAR, India (Reuters) - Thousands of people, most of them Christians, have sought shelter in makeshift government camps in eastern India, driven from their homes by religious violence which has killed at least 13 people this week.

School children attend a prayer meeting to pay tributes to the victims of the recent clashes between Hindus and Christians in Orissa, in the northern Indian city of Shimla, August 29, 2008. REUTERS/Anil Dayal

A district official said on Friday the religious clashes showed signs of abating in the state of Orissa, where Hindu mobs burnt more than a dozen churches and attacked Christians after a Hindu leader was killed.

“Hindu and Christian peace committees have been meeting and the leaders have appealed for calm,” said Krishan Kumar, chief administrator of the worst-affected Kandhamal district.

The bodies of two Christians believed to have been killed earlier this week had been found, Kumar told Reuters, taking the death toll from a week of violence to 13.

He said that a curfew imposed to halt the attacks would be lifted for a few hours.

At least 6,000 people were taking shelter in the government camps and about 5,000 were hiding in forests around Kandhamal, which has a history of communal and religious clashes, for fear of mob violence.

The numbers at the camps were expected to swell to 10,000 later on Friday, Kumar said.

Most of India’s billion-plus citizens are Hindu and about 2.5 percent are Christians. In the Kandhamal area, more than 20 percent of the 650,000 people are mainly tribal inhabitants who converted to Christianity.

Religious violence has troubled the tribal regions of Orissa for years, with Hindus and Christians fighting over conversions.

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While Hindu groups accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith, the Christians say lower-caste Hindus convert willingly to escape a complex Hindu caste system.

CHRISTIANS PROTEST

About 3,000 Christians demonstrated outside the Orissa state building in New Delhi, holding placards calling for peace and condemning the state government.

During the two-hour protest, Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath chided the Orissa chief minister for not stopping the “ethnic cleansing of Christians”.

“We want that violence should be stopped immediately, to restore peace and normalcy in the violence-affected areas,” Cheenath said.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called on the state government, run by a coalition including the opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, to restore peace.

About 25,000 Catholic schools were due to be closed in India on Friday in a symbolic protest against the killings.

The violence has drawn international condemnation.

Pope Benedict has condemned the violence against Christians in Orissa but also deplored the killing of the Hindu leader.

On Thursday, Italy’s foreign ministry said it would summon India’s ambassador to demand “incisive action” to prevent further attacks against Christians.

Additional reporting by Nigamananda Prusty in New Delhi; Writing by Melanie Lee; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Paul Tait

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