Sukkur (AsiaNews) In a press statement released by the National Commission on Justice and Peace (NCJP), the Catholic Church condemns yesterday's attack against two Christian churches in Sukkur, ostensibly motivated by allegations of blasphemy. It denounces the negligence shown by law enforcement agencies in protecting the victims and lays the blame squarely on the authorities for failing to promote inter-communal respect and for ignoring such a problem.
The NCJP statement condemns the "terrible break down of the law and order machinery and the government's inability to stop the abuse of religion and the law [that occurred] in Pakistan yesterday" when hundreds of angry Muslims stormed and sacked St Mary Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan's St Saviour Church in Sukkur, a town in southern Sindh province.
In the press release, Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, respectively NCJP chairman and executive secretary, point out that what happened yesterday was not something new.
"The incident [in Sukkur] is a sad reminder of Shantinagar (1997) and Sangla Hill (November 2005)". All three have one thing in common, namely the "wilful negligence by law enforcing agencies" to intervene and stop the violence.
According to a retired teacher from St. Mary's High School, Mr Sebastian, the incident began after a man named Irfan Gill, a former protestant who converted to Islam two years ago, burnt a copy of the Qu 'ran on Sunday afternoon at his home in order to pin the blame on his father-in-law, Saleem Gill, with whom he was having some sort of dispute.
Under existing blasphemy laws, offences to the Qu 'ran are punishable with life in prison whilst defaming the prophet Muhammad carries a minimum of life in prison or the death penalty. But these laws are often used by people who simply want rid themselves of adversaries or enemies.
According to Mgr Evarist Pinto, archbishop of Karachi, "we must teach our people not to take the law in their own hands and abuse it for personal reasons".
Irfan was arrested by police after a local imam pressed charges against him for making false allegations, but this did not stop a Muslim mob from gathering in front of St Saviour's where a prayer meeting was underway. They stoned the building and left only to come back later to set it on fire. Three mopeds and a car were also torched. They then moved onto St Mary's Catholic Church. On seeing the mob, the lonely policeman guarding the place fled. The building and a portion of the nearby Church-run St Mary's School were ransacked and then torched as well.
"We called the police several times but the mob did what they wanted to do for about two hours," Sebastian said. "Somehow though, we managed to rescue the parish priest and the nuns."
What is happening is really worrying Archbishop Pinto. "Things are really tense for the Christian community in Pakistan," he said. "We are easily targeted by angry mobs and the authorities do nothing to calm our fears."
Mgr Max John Rodrigues, Catholic bishop of Hyderabad, and a representative of the Church of Pakistan came to St Mary's to see the situation.
In the wake of the incident, many police officers are calling for greater security measures to be taken.
In its press statement, the NCJP pointed out the number of attacks by Muslim extremists against religious minorities is on the rise. Instead of acting, the "government has tried to ignore such incidents even though they are symptoms of a dangerous trend towards religious intolerance. The authorities have failed to confront the causes of this situation," which are found inside the country, in its media, school textbooks, and in what some political leaders say.
Despite everything, the NCJP urges Christians to remain calm and "peaceful".