Hindu Extremists Attack Indian Churches, Torch Home of Prominent Christian

Hindu extremists attacked village churches and burned down the home of a prominent Christian politician Thursday, officials said.

Gangs of Hindus and Christians defied a curfew imposed following two days of attacks by Hindu hard-liners. Local police have been unsuccessful in halting the attacks and the federal government announced it was sending in a paramilitary force.

A mob of Hindus torched the house of Radhakant Nayak, a member of the Indian parliament's upper house and a Christian leader in the area, Nayak told the CNN-IBN news channel.

Superintendent of Police Narsingh Bhol said several churches and prayer houses were ransacked in the Kandhamal district of Orissa state area and some were set on fire. He could not give an exact number.

The Press Trust of India news agency quoted unidentified police officials as saying that 11 small churches and prayer houses were ransacked and burned by Hindu hard-liners in the area.

At least 25 people, belonging to both Hindu and Christian communities, have been arrested for suspected involvement in the violence, Bhol told The Associated Press.

Earlier, police said they had deployed hundreds of officers to the area, restoring calm after hard-line Hindus marred Christmas celebrations, ransacking and burning eight village churches in Orissa state, a corner of the country with a history of violence against Christians. One person was killed.

With the attacks resuming despite the arrests and curfew, the federal government said it was sending in a 300-strong paramilitary force.

"We have to get the violence under control," the junior federal home minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal, told reporters.

In the village of Brahmangaon, a group of Christians burned down several Hindu homes in an apparent retaliation for the attacks on churches. Angry Hindus then burned down the village police station, complaining of a lack of protection, a local police official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

India is overwhelmingly Hindu but officially secular. Religious minorities, such as Christians, who account for 2.5 percent of the country's 1.1. billion people, and Muslims, who make up 14 percent, often coexist peacefully. Some have risen to the highest levels of government and business.

But throughout India's history, both communities have faced repeated attacks from hard-line Hindus, with violence against Christians often directed at foreign missionaries and converts from Hinduism.

There were conflicting reports of what sparked the attacks on the churches in the rural district of Kandhamal, about 840 miles southeast of New Delhi. Each side blamed the other.

The Hindu hard-liners said Christians had attempted to attack one of their leaders, 80-year-old Laxmanananda Saraswati of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, who leads an anti-conversion movement.

But the New Delhi-based Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the fighting began Monday when Hindu extremists objected to a show marking Christmas Eve, believing it was designed to encourage Hindus at the bottom of the religion's rigid caste hierarchy to convert to Christianity.

Orissa has one of the worst histories of anti-Christian violence. An Australian missionary and his two sons, aged 8 and 10, were burned to death in their car in Orissa following a Bible study class in 1999.

Orissa is the only Indian state that has a law requiring people to obtain police permission before they change their religion. The law was intended to counter missionary work.