11/15/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Christian leaders urge Pakistan president to repeal blasphemy law

The Christian community has called a protest strike on 17 November in the wake of violence and destruction of churches and Christian places in Sangla Hill. The public security forces are under fire for their alleged inefficiency.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Christian religious leaders in Pakistan today wrote an open letter to the president, Pervez Musharraf, to call for justice, proper investigations and above all an assurance that "Christians in Pakistan are citizens like the rest". The letter follows recent events in Sangla Hill.

On 12 November, an angry mob of around 2,000 people vandalised and set fire to three churches, a nuns' convent, two Catholic schools, the homes of a protestant pastor and a parish priest, a girls' hotel and the homes of some Christians, all in the village of Sangla Hill in Nankana district in Punjab. The attacks were sparked by a presumed case of blasphemy. The leaders called "once more" for the laws to be repealed, saying that their shortcomings have been revealed "yet again".

We reproduce the text of their letter in full:

We religious leaders of the Christian churches condemn this massive attack and we demand a high-level judicial inquiry and exemplary punishment to all the culprits responsible for this deliberate outrage.

The concerned police officers should be immediately suspended until the findings of the judicial inquiry are concluded.

The ferocity of the attacks has left us stunned. What provoked such heinous sacrileges? It was a baseless rumour that Yusaf Masih, a local Christian, had set the Quran on fire.

The fact of the matter is that Yusaf was playing a game with two Muslims who lost a large sum of money. They asked him to return the money back and when he refused, they turned round and accused him of burning the Quran, the letter stated.

On investigation it revealed that a few pages of Quranic verses were lying in a tin box and these were burned by someone and Yusaf was accused. But this allegation has yet to be proved.

Tension built up over the alleged blasphemy on Friday evening, when certain maulvis (Muslim clerics) began to incite the people on the mosque loudspeakers.

The parish Priest, Fr Samson Dilawar, informed the police on Friday night, twelve hours before the attack. They sent a token force of a few policemen.

But the next morning, at the moment of the attack, there were hardly any policemen on guard duty. They only came in force three hours later after the crowd had dispersed.

The role of the law enforcing agencies in this case needs to be thoroughly investigated because they have deliberately neglected their duty, even after being warned.

The sentiments of the Christian community are profoundly shocked and hurt by these heinous acts of desecration on their sacred places of worship.

We strongly condemn these attacks as acts of terrorism against a weak and defenseless religious minority.

These are not the work of an emotional mob but well trained militants who came from outside armed with sophisticated incendiary powders that produce high-density heat. The ceiling fans and roof girders melted from the intense heat.

The incident sharply reveals the ineffectiveness of the new rules of the Blasphemy law. And once again we call for a total repeal of this Law.

Our people feel very much afraid and insecure and only strong affirmative action on the part of your government will reassure them about the truth of your of repeated statement that "Christians are equal citizens of this country".

To register our deep dismay and sadness at the wanton desecration of our three churches and Sisters' convent and schools, we intend to close all our educational institutions on Thursday, November 17, 2005.

If no action is taken, this will be followed by others forms of protest.

Signed by

Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, Archbishop of Catholic Archbishop of Lahore and President Catholic Bishops' Conference

Reverend Alexander J. Malik, Moderator, Church of Pakistan,

Victor Azariah, National Council of Churches in Pakistan,

Col. Gulzar Patras, Territorial Commander, Salvation Army.

 (the photos, taken by our correspondent Kaiser Felix, are the first pictures taken of the destruction of the Sangla Hill churches.)

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