BHUBANESWAR, India (AFP) — Indian police were ordered to shoot on sight to end Hindu-Christian clashes on Wednesday as Pope Benedict XVI "firmly condemned" violence that has killed at least nine people.
Parts of eastern Orissa state have been rocked by Hindu-Christian clashes since Saturday, when a popular hardline Hindu religious leader and four of his disciples were shot dead by unknown assailants.
"We issued shoot-on-sight orders in the wake of large-scale violence" despite a curfew imposed Monday, said local administrator Satyabrata Sahu.
Mobs armed with sticks went on the rampage, torching government buildings and vehicles and staging other attacks, he said.
"This is unprecedented violence, much more widespread than we've ever seen" in the state, Father Babu Joseph, spokesman of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, told AFP.
Anti-riot forces had rushed to the area 300 kilometres (180 miles) southwest of state capital Bhubaneswar but were unable to reach many parts as protesters had "choked access roads with fallen trees," Sahu told AFP by telephone.
Pope Benedict XVI "firmly condemned" the violence in Orissa, where Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt alive in 1999 -- a crime for which a Hindu man is serving life in jail.
The pontiff said he "learnt with great sorrow" about "the violence against the Christian community in Orissa state which broke out after the reprehensible assassination" of the Hindu leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati.
"So far a total of nine persons have been killed in various incidents," Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik told the legislature, adding 54 people were arrested. But he insisted the situation was "under control."
Among those killed was a Hindu woman working at an orphanage who was burnt to death when the missionary-run facility was torched by a Hindu mob. Originally she was reported to be a nun.
Authorities have refused to reveal the religious identities of the other people killed in the clashes. But a senior police official, who wished to remain unnamed, said the dead included two Christians and two Hindus.
National junior home minister Sriprakash Jaiswal, visiting Bhubaneshwar, urged the state government to go on a "war footing" to contain the violence.
Hindu-Christian clashes erupt periodically in India where 2.3 percent of the population of more than 1.1 billion are Christians.
Hardline Hindus accuse missionaries of "bribing" poor tribals and low-caste Hindus, who often face strong discrimination, to convert by offering education and health care.
Police have blamed the death of Saraswati, who had campaigned against the so-called "forced conversions," on Maoist guerrillas. But hardline Hindus accused Christians of responsibility for his death.
"The Christian missionaries are responsible for the murder," fiery Hindu nationalist leader Praveen Togadia told AFP.
Authorities would not comment on allegations by an Indian bishops' group that dozens of churches had been burnt along with hundreds of houses belonging to Christians in Kandhamal and adjoining districts.
Christian groups say a lay missionary was burnt alive and that Catholic priests and other religious figures have been attacked.
Christian groups estimate at least half a million people following the faith live in Orissa. In Kandhamal, where the latest trouble flared, 20 percent of the population is believed to be Christian.
Last December, New-York based Human Rights Watch accused extremist Hindu groups in Orissa of conducting an anti-Christian campaign "while government officials have looked the other way."
The bishops' organisation has asked Catholic-run schools and colleges across India to close Friday to protest against the religious violence.
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