Violence against Christians in the Indian state of Orissa continued for a third day Thursday even as hundreds of armed police patrolled parts of eastern India.
According to unconfirmed reports by the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC), at least 2,000 believers have been injured and about 20 churches damaged since the violence initially broke out Christmas eve.
"The believers in Orissa had their worst ever Christmas," lamented GCIC.
On Monday, a mob allegedly led by activists affiliated with the Viśva Hindū Pariṣad (World Hindu Council) had reportedly killed at least two and damaged 12 churches in the Kandhamal district, where at least 100,000 of 650,000-person population are reportedly Christian. All Catholic institutions in the area, including a convent and seminary, were attacked. Rioters also targeted two church-run hostels and high schools as well as a few shops managed by Christians in the small town of Bamunigam.
"A series of well-planned attacks on innocent Christians and their leaders have completely shocked us," reported Fr. Babu Joseph, spokesperson for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, "and we are deeply pained at a time when we are celebrating peace and harmony of Christmas."
"These attacks on Christians on the day of Christmas seem to suggest a planned effort to disturb communal peace by some misguided and anti-social elements," he added.
"What is more worrying and disheartening to note is the manner in which the unruly mob went on rampaging in villages where Christians were preparing to celebrate Christmas with a near total impunity."
Police had said they had deployed hundreds of armed officers to the area, restoring calm after hard-line Hindus initially marred Christmas celebrations in Orissa state.
However, Radhakant Nayak, a member of the Indian parliament's upper house and a Christian leader in the area, said there was no evidence that forces were on the ground.
"The state government has been saying they have sent forces, but on the ground we are hearing there is no force. The situation is still tense," he told the CNN-IBN news channel.
Orissa state has been notorious for its anti-Christian activities, noted K.P. Yohannan, president and founder of the missions group Gospel for Asia, .
"This is one of the most anti-Christian states in the sense of persecution, and over 12 churches were demolished by the anti-Christian communities," he said. "They beat up quite a few missionaries, and they continue to create more difficulties for the church at large."
Yohannan reported that one GFA church had been burned down amid the latest violence and that it happened in the presence of police.
"[T]he police could not do anything because there were too many that were attacking the church building," he stated. "Then one of our missionaries was caught; they shaved his head and marched him to the temple, and they forced him to kneel down before the [Hindu] deities. And of course they beat him up."
In response to the clashes, Christian leaders on Thursday called for the prime minister's intervention in Orissa when they met him in the morning.
"We have asked the prime minister to intervene in the matter and bring the criminals to justice," said Madhu Chandra, secretary of the All India Christian Council, adding that memorandums would also be submitted to National Human Rights Commission and National Minority Commission.
Political parties have also condemned the violence unleashed against Christians in Orissa, demanding immediate security measures to control the situation.
Chief Minister of Orissa Naveen Patnaik reviewed the situation at a top-level meeting and again appealed to people to maintain communal harmony.
India is overwhelmingly Hindu but officially secular. Religious minorities, such as Christians, who account for 2.3 percent of the country's 1.1. billion people, and Muslims, who make up 13.4 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 hard-line Hindus, with violence against Christians often directed at foreign missionaries and converts from Hinduism.
Hindu right-wing groups have often accused Christian missionaries of luring poor and uneducated tribal people to convert to Christianity with money and promises of jobs, education and healthcare.
Orissa is 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.