By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife Correspondents
BHUBANESHWAR, INDIA (BosNewsLife) — Suspected Hindu militants set fire to several houses in India's eastern state of Orissa Monday, September 1, where church groups said recent attacks against Christians left at least 36 people dead.
Senior police official Gopal Chandra Nanda would not say whether the burned homes belonged to Hindus or Christians, but said an investigation was under way. The attacks took place in Tikabali, a town in Kandhamal district that has been the center of the unrest. Police have imposed a strict curfew across the district for the past week, news reports said.
Monday's clashes, in which no one was reportedly injured, came as a Maoist group claimed responsibility for killing a leader of the radical Hindu group Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or 'World Hindu Council' and four followers August 23.
In a statement to Indian media, the Communist Party of India (Maoist) said it had killed Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his four co-workers to end "endless persecution" of religious minorities in the country.
The group reportedly alleged that Saraswati was a "rabid anti-Christian ideologue and persecutor of innocent Christians and was responsible for the burning down of over 400 churches in Khandamal district alone".
Church leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI, have however condemned the killing of the Hindu leader, which sparked last week's attacks against Orissa's Christian minority. At least one woman was burned to death in the violence, church and official sources said. The Press Trust of India (PTI) quoted officials as saying at least 558 houses and 17 places of worship were also torched in the riots, that followed the killing of VHP leader.
The Indian government reportedly send some 5,500 additional security forces to the strife-torn Kandhamal and Koraput districts, in an effort to keep law and order there, amid reports that violence had spread to at least three other areas in Orissa.
On Sunday, August 31, four small churches were burned in a village in southern Orissa, an area that had not seen recent Christian-Hindu violence, but no one was injured, police said. Thousands have fled their homes and many were believed to still hide in jungle areas, Monday, September 1.
The state has a history of Hindu-Christian tensions, generally fueled by Hindu suspicions about Christian missionary work among the rural poor, according to rights groups. Thousands of poor and lower-caste Hindus have converted to Christianity, often in an attempt to escape the rigid confines of Hinduism's complex caste system.
That has long embittered Hindu groups who say Christian missionaries try to lure the poor and those on the lowest rungs away with promises of money and jobs. Churches deny that the converts have been pressured or bribed, saying that believing in Jesus Christ is a free choice.
The violence in Orissa is the worst in nearly a decade. Last year at least four people were killed and nearly 20 churches destroyed in similar clashes. 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, prosecutors said.
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