07/08/2010, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Punjab soup kitchen forbidden to Christians

The service of cheap meals for the poor is widespread throughout the region and is sponsored by local authorities. In the district of Toba Tek Singh, the organizers of the kiosks, however, discriminate against Christians and claim that the canteen is only for Muslims. Moderate Islamic leaders condemn the incident and invited local authorities to take action.

Anaheim (AsiaNews / ANS) - In Toba Tek Singh in Punjab, the local government forbids poor Christians from taking advantage of a meals service because of their faith. This is revealed by a survey Assist News Service, an agency of the Protestant community.

Recently, the Punjab government decided to offer a free meal service called "dastar Khwan" for the poor, inviting entrepreneurs and philanthropists of every state to finance the project, built largely with public money. The authorities have opened canteens in different areas and villages in the province where every day from 13.00 to 15:00 lunch is served for poor people at a cost of only 9 cents. The initiative was a success all over the Punjab, but not in the district of Toba TAK Singh where many Christians were prevented from buying the meal token.

20 year old Christian Naqash Gill said: "I went to one of the stalls with some friends for a meal. There were four of us and we paid for the meal token. When food was being served, suddenly a security guard came out waving a gun, shouting, 'Hey, you Christians, you have to leave here. The meals are not for you'. " "We tried to speak to the manager, – he added - but the gunman continued to point his weapon at us and ordered us to shut up".

Ashiqi Masih, a poor man who is well known among Muslims for his Christian faith, decided instead to rebel against the discriminatory treatment. "I argued with the manager of the kiosk – he said - stressing that the government has never allowed discrimination against Christians. I said if this was their policy, why not put a sign on the stand saying: 'Only for Muslims ?".

These facts have led the Christian community to turn to politicians, merchants, lawyers, journalists and Muslim religious leaders to resolve the situation which could lead to tension among the population. Some local leaders, including Labour Party of Pakistan member Tariq Mehmood and member of the Punjab AssemblyMohammed Rafique, have condemned discrimination. They explained the situation of the district administration, stressing that the concerns of the Christian community are shared by moderate Muslims.

In response to the accusations, a district spokesman says the government has no policy of discrimination toward Christians. "The citizens – he stated - have to resolve problems among themselves. The government only has the task of providing flour subsidies.”

Rasheed Jalal, head of minorities in the Pakistan Muslim League – PML says that if the problem is not resolved peacefully, Christians have the right to require the district to suspend the grants. "The subsidy - he says - is paid with public money collected from all citizens and must be used for a common goal".

Ch Muhammad Saeed, President of the District Council on Agriculture and a member of Jamiat Islami, says he wants to build a free school meal service open to all poor people and without discrimination based on religion, ethnicity or caste. "Muslims - he says - will eat together with our Christian brothers to foster peace and harmony in the district of Toba Tek Singh." The news was generally welcomed by the Christian community that hopes to see the actual implementation of these promises.

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