FACTBOX-Religious clashes in eastern India

Wed Aug 27, 2008 11:13am BST

Aug 27 (Reuters) - The murder of a Hindu religious leader in India's Orissa state has sparked violent clashes between Hindus and Christians that have killed at least 11 people this week. [nBOM193709]

Here are some facts on religious tensions between Christians and Hindus in Orissa.

HISTORY OF VIOLENCE:

* In 1999, a Hindu mob killed Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by burning them in their car. Staines had been in Orissa since 1965.

* In 2007, violence between Hindus and Christians in Orissa erupted on Christmas Eve with Hindu hardliners burning and damaging 14 churches and killing at least one person. A local Hindu group claimed that Christians had also damaged at least three Hindu temples during the clashes. * Human Rights Watch said last year that extremist Hindu groups in Orissa have been conducting an anti-Christian campaign for years, while government officials have looked the other way.

CAUSES:

* The issue of religion conversion is highly charged in India where Hindu hardliners accuse Christian priests of forcibly converting Hindus to Christianity.

They also claim Christian priests bribe poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith. However Christian groups say lower-caste Hindus who convert do so willingly to escape the highly stratified and oppressive Hindu caste system.

MAOISTS:

* Violence in Orissa erupted this time after armed men killed a Hindu religious leader, linked to the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and four others.

Hindus blamed the attack on Christians but police said local Maoist rebels were behind the killings and were taking sides in a controversy over religious conversions. Christian groups have condemned the killing of the Hindu leader.

Police say by attacking Hindus, the Maoists are trying to win support among the region's poor tribes, most of whom had converted to Christianity.

DEMOGRAPHICS:

* India's constitution is secular, but most of its billion-plus citizens are Hindu. About 2.5 percent of Indians are Christians.

* According to Christian groups estimates, there are 500,000 Christians in the state of Orissa.

* In the rural Kandhamal district, the site of the latest tensions, there are an estimated 150,000 Christians, or 23 percent of the population. (Writing by Melanie Lee; Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Sanjeev Miglani)