11/28/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Christians testify in inquiry into Sangla Hill attacks

The Christians are appearing before the district judge today; at first they had decided not to collaborate, calling for a High Court inquiry.  Pakistan's religious minorities are threatened not only by the blasphemy law, but also by Urdu-language media.

Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – The Christians of the Sangla Hill community in Pakistan are set to appear before the district judge of Nankana to testify about the aggression they suffered on 12 November at the hands of a Muslim mob. That they should appear was decided by the Action Committee Sangla Hill, which had refused to collaborate until a few days ago, demanding a High Court inquiry.

Meanwhile, the statements of two Muslim witnesses have shaken the accusations of blasphemy leveled against Yousif Masih, held to be the spark that ignited the violence. The man, a Christian, was charged with burning some copies of the Koran on 11 November. According to the witnesses' statement, however, Masih and his accuser Mohammad Saleem, were fighting in a place different to that recorded in the blasphemy charge. Right from the beginning of the case, religious leaders as well as the rest of the community have defended Masih: the man is illiterate and unable to distinguish the Koran from other books. His relatives claim the matter is all down to money. The blasphemy law orders the death penalty for those who desecrate the Koran. The national Christian community says the provision is merely a pretext to attack them and to settle personal disputes.

However, the Christian presence in Pakistan is threatened by far more than the blasphemy law. On 25 November, a national newspaper, the Daily Times, drew attention also to the danger presented by the Urdu press; this section of the media completely ignored the Sangla Hill case, reported by all international press, and it continues to publish inflammatory anti-Christian articles. The daily gave some concrete examples, like a report carried in Nawa-e-Waqt on 18 October, which claimed that a priest named "Robert Peterson was given the task to convert Pakistanis to Christianity". The news brief narrates the story of this priest who since 1995 – when he opened his office in Mianwali – "converted 17,000 Muslims". The article said Christians used private radio stations to spread the gospel message and it denounced the existence of branch offices used for conversions in many Pakistani cities. The article finishes off by accusing an organization in Karachi, "Friends for Muslims" of using beautiful women to seduce young men to convince them to embrace Christianity.

The journalist of the Daily Times commented about the article, describing it as "provocative to the extreme" and saying it was "simply incredible" that thousands of Muslims converted; usually "the tendency is to the contrary". He said the Christian Church in Pakistan limits itself to serving poor and marginalized people, recalling that Christians are always in the frontline to offer humanitarian aid and social support without discrimination. The journalist continued to say that Christians ranged themselves in favour of Hindus, often threatened by Islamic fundamentalists, and they offered treatment free-of-charge in their hospitals, even to Muslims, something which often did not happen the other way around.

There are numerous examples of ample coverage given to cases of Christian conversions to Islam. The Daily Times cites the Khabrain newspaper. On 15 October, this paper featured news about Tariq Bhatti, the son of a Protestant pastor in Lahore, who converted to Islam, "inspired by the greatly inspired by the earlier conversion of cricketer Yusuf Yuhann". The article reported the youth's statements, to the effect that he had opted for the Muslim faith because "its truth had made his breast filled with light". "I am ready to start defending the word of Islam", he added. The Daily Times journalist said that often, conversion to Islam is dictated by fear of being victimized one day by the blasphemy law.

This kind of press is a threat precisely because of its capacity to ignite the souls of extremists, who find an outlet for their hate in acts of violence like those perpetrated in Sangla Hill. Another example, also reported by the Daily Times, is the campaign against the Ahmadi community, a Muslim minority held to be heretical; at the beginning of October, the Urdu media published a series of violent statements by the Muslim organization Khatm-e-Nabuwwat; on 7 October, two men on a motorcycle opened fire on a mosque of the Ahmadi community in the village of Mong in north-east Multan, killing eight people.

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