Hundreds of houses have been burned to the ground and police have been ordered to shoot on sight after the killing of a popular Hindu holy leader on Saturday sparked riots that have drawn the condemnation of the pope."There are around 1,500 people from both the communities who have been rescued by the police," local civil administrator Satyabrata Sahu told AFP."We have started running shelter homes with food provisions for the people who have fled their homes," he said.Witnesses in eastern Orissa state estimated the same number again were hiding in forests or camping out at police stations in fear for their lives, although this could not be confirmed."Over 300 people fled our village and have taken shelter in the forest," Kanu Chandra Nayek told the Indian Express newspaper after his village was attacked by a Hindu mob."Here we have almost nothing to eat, there's a constant downpour, our children are sick."State officials said 167 people had been arrested after rioters torched nearly 500 houses as well as Christian prayer halls and vehicles in Orissa.Orissa authorities say 10 people have died, but government officials speaking on condition of anonymity have put the toll at 16.The Catholic Bishops' Conference of India, a coordinating body for the Catholic church in India, put the toll at 13 late Wednesday based on reports compiled by the local archdiocese.The body has called for Catholic schools to shut down Friday and for peaceful rallies across the country in protest of the violence.
However administrator Sahu insisted Thursday the situation was "tense but under control."
Some 2,000 federal and state police have been sent to the worst-hit Kandhamal area in the last three days, senior district official Kishan Kumar said.Italy said Thursday it would summon India's ambassador to stress the need for "decisive action" against what it called "unacceptable violence."Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday "firmly condemned" the violence in Orissa, where Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons were burnt alive in 1999-a crime for which a Hindu man is serving life in jail.Hindu-Christian clashes erupt periodically in India where 2.3 percent of the more than 1.1 billion population are Christians.Hardline Hindus accuse missionaries of "bribing" poor tribals and low-caste Hindus, who often face strong discrimination, to convert by offering education and health care.A spokesman for the Catholic bishops' body said caste prejudice was also spurring the sectarian violence, with most of the converts in the riot-hit areas Dalits-those on the lowest rung of the ancient Hindu caste hierarchy-or tribals."Absolutely the element of caste clash is there," said Father Babu Joseph."They have been progressing these years with better education into the services and also established their own small businesses. All their small businesses were the first targeted."Police initially blamed the death of Saraswati, who had campaigned against the so-called "forced conversions," on Maoist guerrillas.But Hindus in the area have accused Christians of responsibility for his death.Four people have been arrested in connection with the death, police have said, without providing details.