NEW DELHI – Hindu extremists attacked Christians celebrating Christmas in eastern India, ransacking and burning at least six village churches, officials said Wednesday. One person was killed in the violence.
Authorities in the remote district where the churches were attacked have deployed 450 police to quell the violence, which had tapered off by Wednesday, said Bahugrahi Mahapatra, a government official.
There were conflicting reports of what sparked the unrest in Orissa, a state in eastern India with a history of violence against the area's tiny Christian minority. Mahapatra called the violence a "sensitive matter" and refused to discuss how it began.
Some reports said that Christians had attacked a hardline Hindu leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, who had been leading 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 ax and one Hindu died," he told reporters in New Delhi.
But the New Delhi-based Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the fighting began when Hindu extremists objected to a Christmas Eve show, believing the display was designed to encourage Hindus at the bottom of the religion's rigid 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 ablaze the buildings, most nothing more than mud and thatch houses, he said.
Later, dozens of people from each community clashed, Dayal said. One person was killed, although it was not immediately clear if he was a Hindu or Christian. Another 25 people were wounded, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
Although Hindus, the overwhelming majority of India's 1.1 billion people, and Christians, who make up around 2.5 percent of the population, have tended to coexist peacefully in India, the region where the violence took place has a history of tension between the communities.
Orissa, in fact, is the only Indian state that has a law requiring people to obtain police permission before they change their religion, a move designed to counter missionary work.
Much of the ill-will in the area, about 840 miles southeast of New Delhi, stems from anti-missionary sentiments.
In 1999, an Australian missionary, Graham Staines, and his sons Philip, 10, and Timothy, 8, were burned to death as they slept inside their vehicle after a Bible study class in Orissa.
The Christians, meanwhile, have challenged the conversion law in court, saying it violates India's constitution.