updated 12/26/2007 3:05:00 PM ET 2007-12-26T20:05:00

Hindu extremists ransacked and burned eight rural churches in eastern India, marring Christmas celebrations in a corner of the country with a history of violence against Christians, officials said Wednesday. One person was killed in the violence.

Authorities deployed 450 police and imposed a curfew to quell the violence in the remote district of Orissa state where the churches — most nothing more than mud-and-thatch houses — were attacked, said Bahugrahi Mahapatra, a government official.

Six of the village churches were torched on Christmas day, and two more were attacked Wednesday along with 10 houses belonging to Christians, Mahapatra said.

India is overwhelmingly Hindu but officially secular, a fact India's leaders often point out. They note that religious minorities, such as Christians, who account for 2.5 percent of the country's 1.1. billion people, and Muslims, who make up 14 percent, often coexist peacefully. Some have risen to the highest levels of government and business.

But throughout India's history, both communities have faced repeated attacks from militant Hindus, with violence against Christians often directed at foreign missionaries and converts from Hinduism.

Orissa has one of the worst histories of anti-Christian violence. In one of the most brutal incidents, an Australian missionary and his two sons, 8 and 10, where burned to death in their car after a Bible study class in 1999.

Orissa is also the only Indian state that has a law requiring people to obtain police permission before they change their religion. The law was intended to counter missionary work.

Conflicting stories
There were conflicting reports of what sparked the Christmas violence, with each side blaming the other. Mahapatra called the violence a "sensitive matter" and refused to discuss how it began.

The Hindu hard-liners said Christians had attempted to attack one of their leaders, 80-year-old Laxmanananda Saraswati of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, who leads an anti-conversion movement.

"When they were prevented from attacking him by his followers the Christians hit someone with an ax and one Hindu died," Giriraj Kishore told reporters in New Delhi.

But the New Delhi-based Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the fighting began Monday when Hindu extremists objected to a show marking Christmas Eve, believing it was designed to encourage Hindus at the bottom of the religion's rigid caste hierarchy to convert to Christianity. Low-caste Hindus are often a target of missionaries.

An argument over the Christmas show got out of hand and some of the Hindus opened fire on the Christians, wounding three of them, said John Dayal, a spokesman for the Bishops Conference.

The Hindus then went on a rampage Tuesday, Christmas Day, chasing people out of six churches and setting the mud-and-thatch buildings ablaze, he said.

Later, dozens of people from each community clashed, Dayal said. One person was killed, he added, but could not say if the dead man was a Hindu or Christian. Another 25 people were wounded, the Press Trust of India news agency said.

Much of the ill will in the area, about 840 miles southeast of the national capital, New Delhi, stems from anti-missionary sentiment. Some hardline Hindus are pushing for all missionaries to be expelled, while Christians have challenged the conversion law in court, saying it violates India's constitution.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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