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Observers and Christian leaders say India's largest incident of sustained anti-Christian violence, which rendered thousands homeless in Orissa State, was preplanned.

The violence began on Christmas Eve, with an attack on a Catholic church in Brahmani village, and continued until January 2. Christian leaders told the National Human Rights Commission that 9 people had been killed, close to 90 churches burned, about 600 houses torched or vandalized, and thousands displaced.

Three months before the series of attacks, a newspaper had warned that tensions were brewing between the Christian and non-Christian tribal communities over governmental affirmative-action benefits. During Christmas week, local Christians had urged district authorities to provide police protection. Their pleas went unheeded.

Christians make up an estimated 16 percent of the 650,000 people in Kandhamal district. More than 60 percent of them belong to the Pana community and are classified as "Scheduled Castes," better known as Dalits (formerly "Untouchables"). Their demand for recognition as a tribal community is opposed by the largely Hindu Kui people, as it would increase the number of candidates eligible for government-reserved jobs.

With elections due in 10 other states this year and a general election scheduled for 2009, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) plans to use religion-related issues to polarize voters. This tactic, Christians fear, could increase the incidence of anti-Christian violence.

The Orissa State government transferred both the district collector and the police superintendent for failing to prevent the violence. Orissa's population of 36 million includes fewer than 900,000 Christians.



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