Lahore (AsiaNews) - Speaking at a talk show yesterday, Catholic and Protestant religious leaders asked for forgiveness for the killing of two men suspected in terrorist attacks against local churches. The two were lynched by an angry Christian mob and their bodies set on fire.
Violent protests broken out in Lahore's streets following suicide bombings against two churches in Youhanabad, crowded with Sunday worshippers. Seventeen people, including seven Muslims, were killed and more than 70 wounded in the blasts. Police arrested two armed Muslim men at the scene.
However, a mob grabbed two men thought to be involved in the attack, beat them to death and then burnt their bodies at the entrance to the neighbourhood.
After two days, media reports named the two men: Muhammad Naeem, 22, a local glasscutter, and Babar Nauman, 15, a hosiery worker from Sargodha, who was identified by his relatives.
Today shop owners in the city's southern suburbs closed their doors in a sign of protest against the killing of "innocent" Muslims.
The authorities deployed nearly 1,500 police in the Christian Quarter, with agents patrolling the dirty streets lined with closed shops. Youhanabad's 35 or so Christian schools will remain closed until next Tuesday.
"We ask forgiveness for the reaction of the Christian community," said Fr Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) of the Catholic Church of Pakistan.
"Preachers pray only for peace. We are not experts in anti-terrorism," he said at a talk show held in front of Mary's grotto at St John Catholic Church, whose entrance was damaged in the Taliban attack.
At the meeting, some 200 Christians were seated before the Archbishop of Lahore Sebastian Shah, two Catholic priests, two Protestant clergymen, two Islamic students and police officers.
In his address, the bishop told the government that it could expect full collaboration from the Christian community.
Previously the bishop had visited Punjab Chief Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, accompanied by a Christian delegation.
However, as tensions persist, some Christian families have been forced to move in with relatives because, fearing retaliation, they could not go out to get basic supplies.
Muslim clerics criticised the Church for its slow reaction, calling for its leaders to issue a statement condemning the lynching. They also want Christian leaders to hand over the culprits.
According to Moulana Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, Christians were victims but have become tyrants because of some "hapless" people.
"You are not able to carry and teach Christ's message of peace," said other Muslim clerics. "It is your responsibility and moral duty to establish a commission to investigate the incident. It is easy to preach from the pulpit but perhaps religious leaders are not mentally prepared to handle the situation on the ground."
Youhanabad in crisis
"The chief minister assured us full protection, particularly during the Friday sermon," said Fr Mani, who was among the first to arrive on the scene of the lynching and saw with his own eyes the two dead bodies.
"Police are now tasked with arresting the people involved in the lynching. This act [lynching] has evened out the church attacks," he told AsiaNews:
"We can now only ask for forgiveness," said Rev Irshad Ashknaz, vicar at Christ Church. In fact, "There are pressures to arrest Christians."
"We were present when the congregation was being attacked," he noted. "Now what happened after the blasts is all over the news rather than the attacks themselves."
"We condemn the killings but we are not sure how things will turn out," the clergyman said in an attempt to deal with accusations against his Church, whose entrance is still stained with blood.
"I have 6,000 parishioners. I cannot know them all. Those responsible must be brought to justice, but who will guarantee their safety?" he told AsiaNews.
"During the funeral, I assured those present that the government would protect them so that they could reopen their shops," he explained. However, "Today, when schools reopened, no one came. Once crowded streets were deserted."