updated 12/28/2007 1:38:46 AM ET 2007-12-28T06:38:46

Police in eastern India killed at least three people when they opened fire on a group of hard-line Hindus who set fire to a police station during continuing clashes between Hindus and Christians, officials said Friday.

The killings, which occurred Thursday in the remote corner of Orissa state, bring the death toll to four since violence broke out on Christmas Eve, when long-standing tensions between the Hindu majority and the small Christian community erupted over conversions to Christianity.

The Hindus had attacked the police station in Kandhamal district's Brahmangaon village, complaining of a lack of protection after a group of Christians burned down several Hindu homes in an apparent retaliation for attacks on churches.

The state's chief minister, Naveen Patnaik, told reporters Friday that three people were killed there but provided no other details.

Patnaik also called for more federal forces to be dispatched to the area after local police and a curfew failed to halt the violence. On Thursday, the federal government said it was sending a 300-strong paramilitary force to the region.

About 19 churches, most of them small mud and thatch buildings, have been ransacked and burned since Monday and several homes have been destroyed, including that of Radhakant Nayak, a member of India's upper house of parliament and a Christian leader in the area.

At least 25 people, belonging to both Hindu and Christian communities, have been arrested for suspected involvement in the violence, Superintendent of Police Narsingh Bhol told The Associated Press by phone.

India is overwhelmingly Hindu but officially secular. 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.

Conversions inspire violence
But throughout India's history, the issue of conversions has provoked violence by hard-line Hindus.

Hindu groups have long charged Christian missionaries with trying to lure the poor and those who occupy the lowest rungs of Hinduism's complex caste-system away with promises of money and jobs.

Orissa has one of the worst histories of anti-Christian violence. 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.

There were conflicting reports of what started the latest violence in the rural district of Kandhamal, about 1,350 kilometers (840 miles) southeast of New Delhi. Each side blamed the other.

The Hindu hard-liners said Christians had attempted to attack one of their leaders, who heads an anti-conversion movement.

But Christians said the fighting began when Hindu extremists objected to a show marking Christmas Eve, believing it was designed to encourage conversions.

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