Armed policemen have been deployed at several churches, major temples and other religious establishments in Orissa as authorities and many Christians apprehend trouble during Christmas in the state that witnessed widespread communal violence in recent months.
"We have posted armed policemen at all major churches across the state. Policemen have also been deployed at Hindu religious places like the Jagannath Temple and the Sankaracharya Math in Puri," a state home department official said on Tuesday.
Around 4,000 policemen and security personnel have been deployed in Kandhamal district, around 200 km from here, which saw widespread communal violence in August and September following the killing of Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and four of his aides at his ashram Aug 23. But district authorities have asked for more security forces on Christmas day.
Hindu groups had given a shutdown call on Dec 25, demanding immediate arrest of all the people involved in the murders that triggered communal violence in the state. On Friday, they called off their proposed shutdown after assurances from the government. Seven people have already been arrested for the killings.
At least 38 people were killed in the state and thousands were forced to flee their homes after their houses were attacked by mobs in retaliation for the murders of Saraswati and his aides. About 8,000 people are still living in government-run relief camps in Kandhamal. Hindu extremist groups blamed Christians for Saraswati's murder, though Christian groups have denied this repeatedly.
The Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati Shradhanjali Samiti, an organisation linked to VHP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), said instead of the rally, it would organise prayer meeting across the state on Christmas day.
Christians fear the prayer meetings may stir further trouble.
"This is not in the spirit of peace and harmony....It could lead to miscreants indulging in further arson and attack against Christians," Sajan George, president of the Global council of Indian Christians (GCIC), told IANS.
But Hindu leaders maintain there won't be any violence. "The prayer meetings will be peaceful," said Ashok Sahu, a Hindu leader and a former police official.
State Home Secretary A P Padhi said necessary security arrangements are in place to ensure a peaceful Christmas. "Security measures have been taken for churches across the state," he said.
Kandhamal District Collector Krishan Kumar on Monday said the authorities there have asked for the deployment of more forces. District authorities added that they have organised over 150 peace rallies across the region in the past week and intensified patrolling on roads.
Christian leaders have, meanwhile, asked people in Kandhamal to perform midnight mass as per their convenience.
"Some churches are located in remote forested areas. It may not be safe for some people to return home after performing midnight mass at those churches. We have advised people to perform mass at relief camps itself," Swarupananda Patra, general secretary of the All Orissa Baptist Churches Federation, told IANS.
According to Patra, the Baptist Churches Federation runs around 3,440 churches in Orissa and of them, 1,000 in Kandhamal alone.