In one of two incidents of violence in rural Kandhamal district on Thursday, police said about 50 Christians armed with knives, sticks and stones hacked a Hindu man to death in the town of Raikia.

Around 500 Hindus also attacked and burned about 50 Christian homes and two prayer halls in Beherasahi village, Kishore Pradhan, a police officer, said.

Christians account for about 2.5 per cent of India's 1.1 billion population, while Hindus make up 80 per cent.

Clashes first erupted in Orissa after Swami Laxsmananda Saraswati, a prominent Hindu leader, was killed. Though Chritistians deny any role, Hindu religious parties say Christian fanatics were behind the murder.

Saraswati, who actively opposed conversions to Christianity, had survived at least eight previous assassination attempts.

'Forced' conversion

Orissa has a history of religious violence, usually sparked by Hindu suspicions over missionary work.

Hindu activists claim that Christian missionary groups are forcing or bribing people to convert. Church organisations deny anyone has been pressured or paid to change their religion.

Churches have denied bribing or forcing
anyone to convert [AFP]
Pope Benedict has condemned the attacks on Christians in India and Roman Catholic bishops have urged the EU to treat the situation as a humanitarian emergency.

Despite this, violence has continued, especially in Kandhamal, where thousands of Christians now live in government camps because their homes are destroyed or they are too fearful to return.

Hindus at some places have also been at the receiving end of the violence and been attacked.

Religious clashes have also been reported in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka states.

India does not have a long history of attacks on minority Christians, but intolerance has risen in the past two decades with a revival of Hindu nationalism.

Hindu nationalists lead or share power in the three states where Christians have come under attack.