“The Christian community suffered two premeditated attacks,” Archbishop Saldanha. “The first one, on 30 July, fortunately produced no victims. But on 1 August, people were not prepared to confront the onslaught and some died.”
About “seven people died, six from the same family,” the prelate added. But the number of casualties could rise.
Following the intervention of the Pakistani army, calm returned to the area.
The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), which is chaired by Archbishop Saldanha, has decided to shut down all Catholic schools and institutions in Punjab for three days of mourning.
In a joint statement signed by the archbishop and Peter Jacob, the NCJP executive secretary, the NCJP called on the government to address the root causes of religious intolerance in Pakistan.
More specifically, the archbishop denounced the use of a “special fuel” to make it more difficult to put out the flames, a fuel also used in Shanti Nagar, a village that was torched in February 1997 and in Sangla Hill in 2005.
The prelate went on to call for “more decisive government action” to protect the country’s minorities as well as a “special meeting with the authorities in Islamabad,” guilty of not taking “all the necessary steps to defend the population.”
For Mgr Saldanha the Sunni extremist group Sipah-e-Sahabaha could be behind the attack. He said he hoped that “concrete steps” will be taken to stop the violence.
“We must defend ourselves” and “keep a low profile”, he said. “Christians must avoid giving the terrorists more scope to carry out more attacks.”
In an atmosphere of “profound sadness,” he made a plea through AsiaNews: “[We Catholics of Pakistan] call upon the Christians of the entire world for their solidarity and prayers. Do not leave us alone; remain close to us in your hearts and minds. Now all we can do is stay united and hope the situation will improve.”
For NCJP leaders the government must find a solution to the problems caused by the blasphemy laws, which have been used to sow “hatred and divisions” in the country.
They denounce the existence of extremist cells in Punjab, involved in attacks across Pakistan.
Punjab’s provincial government must adopt a strategy to “eliminate hate speech” and violence in all their forms.
In a telegram sent by the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, on behalf of Pope Benedict XVI, to the Bishop of Faisalabad, the Most Reverend Joseph Coutts, the Holy Father said he “was deeply grieved to learn of the senseless attack on the Christian community of Gojra City which resulted in the tragic killing of innocent men, women and children”.
“In the name of God,” he said “everyone” should “renounce the way of violence which causes so much suffering and” instead “embrace the way of peace.”
His Holiness also charge bishop Coutts to strongly encourage the whole diocesan community, and all Christians in Pakistan, to continue their efforts at building “a society which, with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members.”