12/21/2005, 00.00
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Islamic extremists still unpunished 40 days after the Sangla Hill attack

by Qaiser Felix - Peter Jacob
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.

Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – The Christian community in Sangla Hill held two prayer meetings yesterday 40 days—the traditional period of mourning in Pakistan—after the November 12 attack against their places of worship.

The attack was sparked by an alleged case of blasphemy that local Muslim clerics in mosques used to incite people "to do something to defend the sacred Qu'ran from the Christians". On November 12, some 2,000 people descended upon local Catholics and Protestants pillaging and torching their properties.

Fr Samson Dilawar, parish priest in Sangla Hill, told AsiaNews that "after 40 days the police has done nothing since we reported [the attack] to apprehend the true culprits, whom we identified. Since the latter are still free we live in fear because those people can do whatever they want."

"The police," he said, "has not committed to trial any of the 88 people arrested right after the events and did not find any material used to destroy our properties. And the government did not inform us that a judicial inquiry was underway by a Nankana Sahib District judge".

"The tension continues to rise because Muslim clerics keep on making hateful speeches about Christians," Father Dilawar noted. "According to their version, the 88 men detained are devout Muslims who were arrested because of a blasphemer. For this reason they continue insulting us Christians and our faith. They have even found another way to offend us: they print sacred Christian images on shopping bags (which are later used to collect garbage)."

"Contrary to what the representatives of the Pakistani government tell the world, it is not true that we live in peace. Here, we know that things are stacked against us. Extremists continue to hurt our religious feelings and local media pays very little attention to our plight: perhaps 1 per cent of their news coverage. I am grateful to AsiaNews and foreign media for their honest coverage of this tragedy," he added.

Finally, "if the government continues to ignore us and not pay attention to our requests, we shall start a hunger strike beginning on the first day of the new year till death."

Rev Tajmal Parvez is the pastor at the Sangla Hill Presbyterian Church. He "totally agrees with Father Dilawal".

"We lost our 103-year-old church," he told AsiaNews, "which contained old ceremonial vestments. We lost our homes, and the government has shown us a cold shoulder".

Sister Anthony, 68, from the congregation of Franciscan Tertiary Sisters of Lahore, is the principal of St Anthony High School.

"We are still grieving and full of sorrow for what happened, but the worst part of it is that we cannot fully carry on our educational mission," she said.

The school building is in fact "in bad shape. We cannot risk letting children go into the classrooms. They must sit in the stairs, and when it gets cold they don't pay the necessary attention to what is being taught".

St Anthony was the best school in the area. It had been founded in 1956 and half of its teaching staff was always Muslim.

"We cannot celebrate Christmas for the first time in many years," laments the religieuse. "We cannot even give teachers and pupils gifts and I am very sorry for that."

At least 15 children have been pulled from the school. They are Muslims and their parents are convinced that they will not be treated as well as before; they fear they will be discriminated.

"On the contrary," says Sister Anthony, "we shall be closer to them for they are not in no way responsible for what happened. Our faith and teachings are based on love for all. We have always treated everyone equally and shall continue to do so because our pupils are Pakistani, not Christian or Muslim. This way we hope to wash away extremism from everyone's mind and replace it with love and tolerance".

In order to highlight this unjust situation, the National Commission for Justice and Peace in collaboration with the Joint Action Committee for People' Rights (which includes 35 national organisations) yesterday organised a peaceful protest in front of the Lahore Press Club.

Ms Asma Jehangir, UN special rapporteur on religious tolerance, was among those who attended the event.

Those who spoke at the protest rally called on the government to make public the still secret judicial inquiry report on the Sangla Hill incident and "stop making public statements and rhetorical promises about inter-faith harmony" instead of taking concrete steps towards finding and arresting the culprits.

"To truly promote harmony among religions," they insisted, "discriminatory laws and policies still in place in Pakistan must be abolished".

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