By Jatindra Dash
BHUBANESWAR, India, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Authorities imposed a curfew in several towns in eastern India on Wednesday after fresh attacks by Hindus on Christians as clashes over religious conversions spread, officials said.
Hindu crowds set fire to houses in two largely Christian villages on Tuesday in the district of Kandhamal in the state of Orissa on Tuesday, killing one person. One church was also burnt. "We have now re-clamped day and night curfew in at least nine towns," district superintendent of police S. Praveen Kumar told Reuters. Ten people have been arrested.
The violence followed a string of attacks on Christians in three states that has killed at least 34 people and damaged dozens of churches in the last month. Christians have responded with some violence in Orissa.
More than 3,700 federal police have been deployed in Orissa, the focus of the violence, although Christian groups and local media have accused police and state authorities of turning a blind eye to some attacks.
In Orissa, thousands of Christians now live in government camps because their homes were destroyed or they are too fearful to return.
The Hindu, a respected national newspaper, reported on Wednesday that many Christians were only allowed to return to their villages if they converted back to Hinduism.
The same newspaper has this week detailed attacks, largely on Christians, that included reports that a young nun was gang raped in August and a priest who tried to stop the attack was beaten and doused with kerosene.
Victims of attacks say Hindu nationalist political groups such as the hardline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Sangh Parivar have been involved. Hindu nationalist groups deny this.
Pope Benedict has condemned the attacks and Roman Catholic bishops have urged the European Union to treat persecution of Christians as a humanitarian emergency.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, repeatedly questioned about the violence while on a trip to France, called the attacks a "national shame" and asked the Orissa state government, run by a Hindu-nationalist coalition, to ensure law and order.
The clashes were sparked by the issue of religious conversion in Orissa’s poor tribal region, home to many Christian missionary groups. Hindus have opposed the Christian missionaries’ conversion of lower-caste Hindus.
Religious clashes have also been reported in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka states, which are both headed by Hindu-nationalist governments.
The clashes first erupted in Orissa in August after the killing of a Hindu leader linked to the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Police suspected Maoist rebels but many Hindus in the region blamed Christians.
India does not have a long history of attacks on minority Christians, but intolerance has risen in the past two decades with a revival of Hindu nationalism. (Writing by Alistair Scrutton; Editing by Bill Tarrant)