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Hindu-Christian Violence Kills 9 in India's Orissa State

In India's eastern Orissa State, spiraling violence between Hindus and Christians has killed at least nine people. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha reports on the religious tensions gripping the region.

Authorities issued shoot-at-sight orders and police staged marches Wednesday in Orissa's Kandhamal District, the region worst-hit by violence between Hindus and Christians.

Kandhamal is a primarily tribal area, where Christian missionaries have worked for decades. Almost 20 percent of the district's people are Christians.

The clashes erupted after the killing of a Hindu leader, Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four others on Saturday by unidentified armed men. The Hindu leader had been leading a drive to reconvert local residents from Christianity to Hinduism.

Since then, angry Hindu mobs have attacked and damaged churches, Christian homes and an orphanage. Some of the victims were burned to death, when rioters set fire to their homes.

Police say rival groups from both communities have attacked each other with axes, sticks and guns, despite a curfew. New clashes occurred Wednesday.

Home Minister Shivraj Patil says the federal government has asked state authorities to protect all communities.

"We asked them to take stern action to protect the properties, the churches, the life and limbs of people and properties and houses of other people also," said Patil.

Police say the Hindu leader was killed by local Maoist rebels. But Hindus blame Christians for his death. He belonged to a hard-line Hindu group called the World Hindu Council.

This is not the first time that tensions have run high between Hindus and Christians in Orissa. In 1999, a Hindu mob killed an Australian missionary and his two sons by setting fire to their car.

Hard-line Hindu groups accuse Christian missionaries of trying to convert illiterate tribal or Hindu villagers by alluring them with promises of free education and medical care, a charge denied by the missionaries.

Christian organizations in India have asked the government to end the violence. Christians make up about two percent of India's population, which is predominantly Hindu.