12/01/2005, 00.00
PAKISTAN
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Muslim eyewitnesses cover up for the real culprits in the Sangla Hill trial

AsiaNews interviews 1 of the 13 Christian witnesses to the attacks against churches and other religious buildings in the village. "Muslims are not telling the truth; we heard words directed at us coming from the local mosque," he says. The Asian Human Rights Commission joins the victims in demanding an investigation by a higher court.

Sangla Hill (AsiaNews) – Tensions remain high as the Sangla Hill trial continues in the Nakana Sahib District Court. Muslim leaders accuse Christians of being responsible for the acts of vandalism that they complain about, and demand the release of the 88 Muslims taken into police custody over the incidents.

AsiaNews has interviewed 1 of the 13 Christians who testified before district court judge Sheikh Mohammad Yousaf on November 28.

The 13 made their deposition in camera since the Muslim witnesses—who were heard first—"covered up for the real culprits even if they know their identities".

So far "no one has yet named the culprits who incited the mob to attack churches and Christian properties even though they know who they are," complained Saqib Bhatti who was not mincing his words.

"We told the judge that we heard Maulvi Zulfiqar incite people against Christians in the Markazi Jamia Rizvia Mosque," he said.

"He told people to meet near the Madni Palace, which belongs to Malik Azam," a nazim (leader) in the local council.

On Saturday November 12, a mob of some 2,000 people spurred on by their religious leaders marched on the village of Sangla Hill. They first destroyed then torched three Christian churches, a convent, two Catholic schools, the home of a Protestant clergyman and that of a Catholic priest, a hostel for girls and the homes of a few Christians.

For now though, the deposition of two Muslim witnesses, including that of plaintiff Mohammad Saleem, are undermining the blasphemy charges brought against Yousaf Masih, which sparked the November 12 violence.

The prosecution has accused the Christian man of burning a few copies of the Qu'ran the day before. However, the depositions suggest that Masih and Saleem were involved in an argument at a location away from where the alleged blasphemy took place.

What is more, Salim's statement appears inconsistent. On the one hand, he claims that the alleged incident occurred at 1 pm and that it took two and a half hours to put the fire out and capture Masih. On the other, he reported it to the police at 12:45 pm, that it before it ever took place.

Since the start of this affair, religious leaders and Masih's community defended him. He is illiterate and cannot tell one book apart from the next, including the Qu'ran. For his relatives the incident stems from an economic dispute, and Masih claims he is innocent.

Under Pakistan's Blasphemy Law, desecrating the Qu'ran is a capital crime. But for the country's Christian community, it is an excuse to attack it and settle personal scores.

Tensions remain high despite the Punjab government's intention to prevent it from escalating into sectarian violence.

By contrast, Maulana Sarfraz Naeemi, secretary general of a Muslim organisation called Tanzimat Madaris Diniya, has accused local authorities of paying scant attention to the desecration of the Qu'ran. He is threatening to organise a march to free the 88 Muslims rounded up on "false charges" of having destroyed Christian churches. Instead, Naeemi's group has accused Christians of setting fire to the buildings themselves.

The Hong Kong-based Asia Human Rights Commission has joined the victims of the Sangla Hill incidents and demanded that the case be investigated by a higher court, not a district-level court.

Christians also want to know why if charges were laid against someone, the nazim and the populace took direct action to meet out justice on their own. They also want to know where the police was during the incident. (QF - PJ)

In the photo, Christian witness Sahiq Bhatti 

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