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Religious tension hangs heavy in sacred Hindu city

In the Indian city of Mathura, Hindus and Muslims hold on to a shaky peace at a holy site.

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Sharafat Khan's husky baritone, well-tuned for bartering in this noisy Indian marketplace, lowers to a whisper when he discusses Gujarat, a violence-torn region far from his hometown.

"Yes, we are watching the murder of our Muslim brothers there, and we are worrying. Maybe we are next," says the burly iron fabricator, as he huddles close to his son. "I was born in Mathura. I have friends here who are both Hindu and Muslim, but I know that could change, if only someone decides to play more political games."

Gujarat and its communal violence may be hundreds of miles away, but many in Mathura, such as Mr. Khan, are nervously watching the region's rising death count, now close to one thousand.

Violence in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya escalated Feb. 27 after a Muslim mob firebombed a train carrying Hindus who wanted a temple re-built on a mosque site there. The incident sparked India's worst religious violence in a decade.

Residents of Mathura worry that a similar scenario awaits them, because their city, like Ayodhya, is home to a highly significant religious site being fought over by Hindus and Muslims.

Some 3,000 holy places are scattered across India, where hundreds of years ago Muslim rulers are said to have destroyed sacred Hindu temples to build mosques. But Mathura, Ayodhya, and Varanasi are three that were singled out for dispute in the early 1990s by Hindu extremists because of their religious importance.

At Mathura, citizens are trying to stay calm. But around the corner from Khan's sidewalk stall, sweets shop owner Laxmandass Maheshwori admits he is concerned.

"We are Hindu, but we live in a Muslim area and are very happy together. And now my business is just six months old, and it is good...," says Mr. Maheshwori before adding in a hushed tone: "If something happens here, then everything will be lost."

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