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    » 11/14/2006, 00.00

    PAKISTAN

    Sangla Hill tragedy: victims speak out a year later

    Qaiser Felix

    AsiaNews is back in the Punjabi village on the first anniversary of the violent attack against local Christians to listen to victims speak out. Still traumatised, they live in fear. The man accused of blasphemy was eventually cleared but he, too, still has to live in hiding. A year on the police has failed to apprehend the real culprits. Homes and churches destroyed by fire are still waiting to be rebuilt amid government inaction and some Christian leaders' ambiguity.

    Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – A year after a violent attack against the Christian village of Sangha Hill, Pakistan, people still live in fear. Churches have not yet been rebuilt and the Christian falsely accused of blasphemy is still in hiding whilst the real culprits walk free. But something positive has emerged: Sangha Hill Christians are more united, determined to overcome this trauma.

    The attack and the investigation

    On November 12, last year, an angry mob of some 2,000 people pillaged and then burnt property owned by Christians in the village of Sangla Hill, in Nankana district (Punjab). Three churches, a nuns' convent, two Catholic schools, the homes of a Protestant and a Catholic clergyman, a girls' hostel, a dispensary run by nuns, some private homes owned by Christians were first vandalised and then set on fire. The violence was triggered when rumours spread that a local Christian had burnt some pages of the Qur'an. Under Pakistan's anti-blasphemy law such action is punished by life in prison.

    Police arrested 88 Muslims allegedly involved in the case but many local Christians believe the real culprits are still free.

    Punjab's Chief Minister Chuadhri Pervaiz Elahi ordered a judicial enquiry into the affair, but the report has not yet been made public. He visited Sangla Hill and promised the authorities would take care of reconstruction and vowed stern action against the culprits.

    Recently, local Muslims and Christians have reached a truce. Christians have forgiven Muslims and the case against Yousaf Masih, the man accused of blasphemy, was dropped. He and the 88 Muslims arrested in connection with the case were released. However, some local Christians believe that the quid pro quo was the result of heavy-handed pressure exerted on the Christian side by Islamic groups and the local administration.

    Sangla Hill: a year after for Catholics and Presbyterians

    AsiaNews went back to Sangla Hill a year after the violent attack against the village and spoke to some of its residents.

    Zulfiqar Hammayoon, 36, is Yousaf Masih's younger brother. He said his brother is now in hiding in a secret location out of fear that the real culprits, whom the police have failed so far to find, might retaliate.

    "Yousaf can't work," Hammayoon said, "but thanks to the help provided by the National Justice and Peace Commission his four children are studying in a Christian school. We visit him sometime and give him some financial support".

    "He'd like to go back to Sangla Hill, but unfortunately this is not possible now," he added.

    He ended the interview appealing for a repeal of the anti-blasphemy law in Pakistan.

    Fr Joseph Shahzad, Sangla Hill's parish priest since last May, said that although things are under control for now, the community is still living in fear.

    "I began visiting and talking to people personally so they could come out, feel less insecurity and start thinking positively," he noted. "And I feel that people in Sangla Hill are now more united and closer to God than before".

    Repairing the church is slow going though. About 90 per cent of the work might be completed but for the last two months the government contractor has stopped the work.

    The worst loss of all, Father Shahzad said, were a hundred years of records which cannot be recovered; a century of marriage and baptism certificates gone up in smoke.

    The local Church has decided to mark the anniversary only with prayers, no demonstrations or protests.

    The local Presbyterian congregation decided instead to mark November 12 by celebrating holy mass wearing black arm bands as a sign of protest. Outside the church some banners were placed on the church's walls reminding the Chief Minister of his promise to rebuild the Presbyterian Church and pastor house, which were totally wrecked last year.

    Presbyterian leaders, local sources said, tried several times to tell the authorities of their duty but their appeals fell on deaf years.

    The Presbyterian Church has been critical of the Catholics' decision not to speak out against the government. It its view, in doing so, it is playing into the hands of politicians and Muslim organisations.

    Rev Tajmal Pervez also pointed the finger at the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, which at the time of the attack had pledged assistance, but which has done nothing so far despite "receiving thousands of dollars from abroad".

    But his criticism does not spare the moderator of his own Church, James Arthur, who has raised considerable amounts of money but has not spent "even a penny on church or pastor house." More importantly, he noted, "we don't know where the money is."

    Others never the less highlighted some hopeful signs. During the Muhammad cartoons affair and the Pope's speech row there were no violent protests or hate speech from Sangla Hill Muslims.

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    See also

    21/12/2005 PAKISTAN
    Islamic extremists still unpunished 40 days after the Sangla Hill attack
    Protesters announce a hunger strike "till death" beginning on the first day of the new year if the government continues to ignore the situation. Local religieuse says her school's mission continues: to teach children that love defeats extremism.

    30/01/2008 PAKISTAN
    A 15-year-old Christian boy is abducted and killed, possibly by organ traffickers
    Two Muslim men from Nankanna admit kidnapping and killing the Christian boy, but his body has not been found even where the self-confessed murderers said they dumped him. Like others who have disappeared, Francis Nadeem is being used to get organs to sell to the rich, says the family.

    02/01/2006 PAKISTAN
    Hunger strike for peace in Sangla Hill
    It is a protest against the government's cold shoulder towards Christians victimised by Islamic extremism, says the Archbishop of Lahore. There is hope though that the new year will be better for Pakistan's religious minorities.

    16/11/2005 PAKISTAN
    Punjab Christians urge government to visit their destroyed churches

    The AsiaNews correspondent in Sangla Hill has gathered witness accounts and precise accusations from the Christian community there, which saw churches, convents and schools burned down and looted. "Blasphemy has nothing to do with it," they say. "It's all about persecution." Torture at the police headquarters was reported. (Photos were taken by our correspondent: the Christian community of Sangla Hill and their destroyed property).



    03/08/2009 PAKISTAN
    Anti-Christian attacks “premeditated”, says archbishop of Lahore
    Mgr Saldanha calls for more decisive government action to protect the Christian minority, forced to “defend itself alone”. He launches an appeal “to protect the Christians of Pakistan.” Christian leaders shut down all Christian schools and institutions to protest the violence. The Pope sends a telegram for the victims.



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