VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict on Wednesday condemned spiralling violence against Christians in Orissa but also deplored the killing of a Hindu leader that sparked clashes.
Benedict said he was profoundly saddened by the violence that has left as least 11 people dead, nearly all Christians, and by destruction of Christian homes, churches and orphanages at the hands of Hindu mobs in Orissa.
“While I firmly condemn every attack on human life, whose sacredness required respect by all, I express my spiritual closeness and solidarity to the brothers and sisters in the faith who are so sorely tried,” he told pilgrims and tourists at his week general audience.
Three bodies were found overnight in an eastern Indian state racked by clashes between Hindus and Christians as violence spread to new districts.
Hindu mobs damaged more than a dozen churches and attacked Christian homes and an orphanage this week after the murder of a Hindu leader Kandhamal district, a tribal area where Christian missionaries have been active for years.
The pope specifically condemned the killing last week of a Hindu leader linked to the main opposition Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and four others.
Police blamed the killings on local Maoist rebels taking sides in a controversy over religious conversions, but Hindus say Christians were to blame.
The pope, making his first comment on the episode, appealed to local religious and political leaders to do everything possible to restore peaceful inter-religious coexistence.
The murdered leader had been heading a local campaign to reconvert Hindus and tribal people from Christianity.
Religious violence has roiled Kandhamal region for years with Hindu and Christian groups fighting over religious conversion.
Hardline Hindus accuse Christian priests of bribing poor tribes and low-caste Hindus to change their faith. Christian groups say lower-caste Hindus who convert do so willingly to escape the highly stratified and oppressive Hindu caste system.
A top body of Indian bishops said that in protest against the killings some 25,000 Catholic schools and colleges in India would be closed on Friday.