11/13/2005, 00.00
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Thousands of Muslims burn Christian churches, convents, schools and homes in Punjab

by Qaiser Felix

The Justice and Peace Commission accuses the police of "criminal negligence" because they did not intervene, and also criticizes ministers and politicians for not scrapping the blasphemy law.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Three churches, a nuns' convent, two Catholic schools, the houses of a Protestant pastor and of a parish priest, a girls' hostel, some Christian homes, were first vandalized and then set on fire by an angry crowd of around 2,000 people in the village of Sangla Hill, Nankana district in Punjab. At least 450 Christian families fled from the village and they have not yet returned for fear of further violence.

Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, Archbishop of Lahore Archdiocese and Chairman National Commission for Justice and Peace (see photo), told AsiaNews that "the attack seems to have been planned and organized as the attackers were brought to the site in buses and instigated to commit violence and arson. It gave our people a lot of fear and anxiety but we hope the government will do something.

The violence took place yesterday at around 10am (local time) and was apparently motivated by the latest blasphemy case. On Friday 11 November, a Christian Yousaf Masih, allegedly burned some copies of the Koran and disappeared. One of his brothers, Salim Masih was arrested the day before. The Commission of Justice and Peace in Lahore said the blasphemy accusations were false: the accusers had economic problems to sort out with the families they accused.

Even Saqib Sohail Bhatti, a Christian general councillor of Sangla Hill told AsiaNews the accusations were false: Yousaf Masih is an illiterate person and has cannot distinguish the Koran from any other book.

Religious leaders are at least partly responsible for provoking the violence: yesterday, in mosques, they called the faithful to gather outside the Jamia Madni Masjid, the central mosque, where they urged them to act against Christians. In fiery speeches, the leaders provoked the mob to set to fire each and every Christian place of worship.

Carrying out these orders, the crowd first sacked the house of Yousaf Masih and later his brother's. Then they headed for the Presbyterian Church, setting the building, books and the house of the local pastor, Tajamal Perveiz, on fire. The enraged group then went to the Catholic Church of Holy Spirit and adjacent nun's convent and vandalized them as well as the residence of Fr Semson Dilawar, parish priest of Sangla Hill parish.

The crowd of some 2,000 Muslims also caused severe damage to the Saint Anthony primary and High Schools, destroying its furniture, record, laboratories and library.

The Church of the Salvation Army was also damaged.

A Christian MP, Akram Gill, pointed a finger at the police: he telephoned the forces of order to call for protection for Christians but got no help. Anwar Sohail, who also witnessed the incidents, told AsiaNews that "police were there when the mob came to attack the Catholic Church but they fled away and let the protesters enter the Church".

The Justice and Peace Commission issued a statement saying that "the local police seem to be party in this act of terror and using religion for hatred against the religious minorities". Thus, "an immediate judicial inquiry should be made called to establish the causes, effects, and responsibility of these shameful incidents. Moreover, a strict action should be taken against the policemen for their criminal negligence."

The statement said the "blasphemy laws are main sources and tools for creating social, sectarian and inter-religious disharmony in the country. It is negligence on the part of the ministries, department responsible, who allow the misuse at such a large scale causing huge amount of injustice." The Commission therefore calls on the government to "take affirmative steps to educate masses about tolerance and peace, remove religious biases in the syllabus and media policy and repeal discriminatory laws."

Justice and Peace recalled that many Christian organizations are working alongside other Pakistanis to deliver aid to earthquake survivors. "At a time when we need solidarity from all over the world, this lawlessness is a bad news for the country.

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