updated 12/30/2007 5:29:00 AM ET 2007-12-30T10:29:00

Hundreds of Christians, fearing more clashes with Hindu nationalists, fled to government-run relief camps where authorities on Saturday were providing them with food, medicine and security.

The clashes left at least four people dead last week, including three killed when police fired on a group of hard-line Hindus that had torched a police station in Kandhamal district's Brahmangaon village. Another person also died in the communal fighting.

The Hindus had complained that the police were failing to protect them from Christians.

Series of struggles
The killings and subsequent flight of nearly 700 Christians to four relief camps are the latest in a series of religious and political power struggles in the secular but Hindu-dominated India's eastern state of Orissa, which has one of the worst histories of anti-Christian violence.

In 1999, 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.

But relations between 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 _ are usually peaceful.

There were conflicting reports of what sparked the violence in rural Kandhamal, about 840 miles southeast of New Delhi. Each side blamed the other.

The Hindu hard-liners said Christians tried to attack an 80-year-old leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad group, who leads an anti-conversion movement.

The New Delhi-based Catholic Bishops Conference of India said the fighting began when Hindu extremists took offense at a show marking Christmas Eve, believing it was an attempt to convert poor and lower-caste Hindus to Christianity.

Long-embittered
That has long embittered Hindu groups who say Christian missionaries try to lure the poor and those on the lowest rungs of Hinduism's complex caste-system away with promises of money and jobs.

Since Monday, Hindu nationalists have ransacked and burned about 19 churches, according to officials who say Christians burned down several Hindu homes in apparent retaliation.

Authorities were providing food, medicine and security to Christians moving into the four relief camps, said Pradeep Kapoor, the inspector-general of police.

Two police officers were suspended and a top district administrator was transferred for failing to prevent the violence, Kapoor told The Associated Press. Nearly 800 police and paramilitary forces were trying to restore calm.

At least 25 people have been arrested, Superintendent of Police Narsingh Bhol said.

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

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