Al Qaeda Link Suspected in Pakistan Anti-Christian Riots

Pakistan government officials on Tuesday said they suspect Al Qaeda and Taliban allies are behind the latest series of deadly attacks on Christians.

Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a banned pro-Taliban Sunni Muslim extremist group, and the Al Qaeda-linked group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), are believed to have incited Saturday's attack on Gojra town in central Pakistan, said Rana Sanaullah, Punjab Province's law minister.

"Absolutely, these banned groups are involved in the rioting," Sanaullah, who is also responsible for security in Punjab, told Reuters by telephone from Gojra.

The Pakistani government is currently battling Taliban forces in the country's northwest province where the terrorist group has recently established a stronghold in much of the area. Authorities fear that the Taliban and its supporters are now pushing into the central part of the country.

Hundreds of angry Muslims torched Christian homes in Gojra on Saturday, resulting in the deaths of eight believers, including two children and several women. The attack was sparked by an allegation that a Christian family had desecrated the Quran when pages of the Islamic holy book were found in front of their home after a Christian wedding.

Authorities investigating the claim have said they found no evidence supporting the accusation.

The Gojra attacks followed a riot in Korian, also in Punjab Province, on Thursday when angry mobs torched dozens of local Christian homes. The Korian attack was the first violent incident after the Quran desecration allegation.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) executive secretary Cecil Chaudhry denounced the attacks as "deplorable," and said the Gojra incident could have been prevented by local authorities.

"That they failed to do so makes it all the more important for the police bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice," Chaudhry said. "They must especially bring the extremists who instigated these and other attacks to trial under the Anti-Terrorism Act."

World Council of Churches general secretary the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia said the violence "reconfirms the fear that the government is constantly failing to protect its citizens." Kobia appealed to Pakistan's president, Asif Ali Zardari, in a letter Monday to "ensure the safety and security" of Christians. He also expressed the concern that "blasphemy laws in Pakistan are being used as an excuse to victimize the minority Christians."

Punjab Province law minister Sanaullah said a recent government intelligence report suggest militants are using the new tactic of inciting sectarian violence in place of suicide bombings.

Open Doors, a Christian persecution watchdog group, ranks Pakistan as No. 13 among countries that are the worst persecutors of Christians.

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