12/28/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Christmas celebrated in Sangla Hill church damaged by Muslim mob

by Yaqoob K Bangash
Christmas celebrations in Holy Spirit Church go ahead without a hitch. A few days earlier, the archbishop of Lahore celebrated the first mass following the attack.

Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – Sangla Hill's Christians celebrated Christmas without incidents in the recently re-consecrated Holy Spirit Church after it was attacked last month by thousands of Muslims. Local sources said that Midnight Mass went ahead without a hitch with a large participation of local Christians. Fr Samson Dilawar, Sangla Hill's parish priest, celebrated mass on both occasions.

Holy Spirit Church was damaged during a November 12 attack. Charges of blasphemy laid at a local Christian led local Islamic clerics to incite Muslim faithful "to do something to defend the Holy Qu'ran from the Christians".

About 2,000 people responded by pillaging and torching properties owned by Protestants and Catholics in this village in Punjab.

Local authorities bore the costs for repairs to the church, which needed new windows, doors, altar and furniture.

The building itself was re-consecrated on December 22 with Mgr Lawrence Saldanha, archbishop of Lahore, presiding over the ceremony. The first mass in the restored church drew a large crowd of faithful.

In his homily, Archbishop Saldhana emphasised the need for reconciliation between the two communities so that Christians in Sangla Hill can have "a fresh start".

Following the religious ceremony, Asma Jahangir, a leading human rights activist and the UN Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance, addressed the Christian community.

She came with a team of community leaders and activists from Lahore and expressed her grief and solidarity to the community, promising that she will always remain by their side in their hour of need.

Afterwards, a meeting took place involving representatives of both religious communities, the local administration, the district coordination officer and the district police officer.

Maulana Zulifqar, a local Muslim leader, completely absolved himself and the other Muslim leaders from any wrongdoing in the November 12 attack. On the contrary, he insisted that he tried to stop the crowd from attacking the church. At the same time, he justified the aggression calling it a natural reaction to be expected. 

For her part, Ms Jahangir said "we must focus on the issue of justice and equity. The perpetrators and instigators of the attack need to come forward, apologise for their actions and resolve not to indulge in such acts in the future".

Pir Ibrahim Salalvi, a member of the Provincial Peace Committee and a noted Muslim leader, spoke against the Blasphemy Law, saying that nearly 65 per cent of the accused in recent years have been Muslims. He expressed his support for the repeal of the law, something Christians have been demanding for quite some time.

At the meeting, both sides resolved to set up a ten-member committee to deal with contentious issues in the future.

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