Church trashed as India religious riots spread

BHUBANESWAR, India Thu Aug 28, 2008 6:28pm BST

A jeep, which was set on fire by a mob during a statewide strike protesting the killing of a Hindu leader, is seen in Padampur town in the eastern Indian state of Orissa August 25, 2008. REUTERS/Santanu Biswal

A jeep, which was set on fire by a mob during a statewide strike protesting the killing of a Hindu leader, is seen in Padampur town in the eastern Indian state of Orissa August 25, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Santanu Biswal

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BHUBANESWAR, India (Reuters) - Hindu mobs ransacked a church and clashed with Christian villagers in eastern India on Thursday, police said, as Italy said it would summon India's ambassador to demand "incisive action" to prevent more attacks.

Indian authorities have struggled to control spiralling religious violence in the eastern state of Orissa.

Hindu mobs have destroyed more than a dozen churches and attacked Christians this week after the murder of a Hindu leader in Kandhamal, a tribal area where Christian missionaries have been active for years.

Shoot-on-sight orders have failed to end clashes that have killed at least 11 people, mainly in Kandhamal district.

Police deployed more than 3,000 personnel in the streets on Thursday but they could not stop the ransacking of at least one church. Local media said as many as four churches were attacked.

"Police are marching in several areas now," Orissa police chief Gopal Chandra Nanda told Reuters.

Television pictures showed mobs armed with rods putting up road blocks on Thursday and others attacking churches.

Other mobs armed with bows and arrows and axes have attacked Christian homes, dragging out women and children. Hundreds have fled to forests and nearby hills, officials said.

"Moments after we passed by a Christian village, people set it on fire and everything was over within minutes," a senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said from Kandhamal, the worst-hit district.

India's constitution is secular, but most of its billion-plus citizens are Hindu. About 2.5 percent of Indians are Christians. But around the Kandhamal area, home to around 650,000 people, more than 20 percent of the mainly tribal inhabitants are Christian converts.

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

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.

ITALY CONDEMNS

The killings have drawn international reaction. 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 will summon India's ambassador to demand "incisive action" to prevent further attacks against Christians.

A statement issued after a cabinet meeting also said Italy would ask France, the current EU president, to take up the issue at a future meeting of foreign ministers.

The Indian ambassador would be told of Rome's "strong expectations" for "an incisive, preventive and repressive action by Indian authorities regarding such unacceptable acts of violence," the Italian statement said.

In Orissa, peace committees were set up in villages and India's Prime Minister Manmohan Singh discussed the violence with a delegation of bishops in the capital, New Delhi.

But Christians in many villages said attacks were worse than the government has said.

(Additional reporting by Philip Pullella in Rome; Writing by Bappa Majumdar; Editing by Alistair Scrutton, Paul Tait and Tony Austin)

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