Pakistani Christians Close Schools to Protest Killings

For three days starting on Monday, Christian schools in Pakistan will be shut down as an act of mourning as well as peaceful protest to the recent brutal attacks on Christians that left at least eight dead, including two children.

"We believe in peace, so we are protesting against the Gojra tragedy in a peaceful manner," said Saleem Michael, an official of the Catholic Board of Education in Pakistan's financial capital Karachi, to Agence France-Presse.

In Karachi alone, the board oversees about 62 schools with a total of about 50,000 students.

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Hundreds of angry Muslims attacked Christian homes and churches in Gojra – a remote village about 100 miles west of Lahore in Punjab province on Saturday. Gojra is a Christian town with about 2,000 Christian families residing there.

During the attack, dozens of homes were set on fire, including one where a family of five was locked inside and burned alive, AFP reported. Two children - one aged six and the other 13 – their parents and 75-year-old grandfather were locked in a room by the mob as their home was torched.

"Five members of one family burnt to death, including innocent children and their parents. How we can feel safe and secure in such a country," said Father Shabbir Bashir of Gojra to AFP.

"They killed us. They ransacked our houses. They looted our homes. How we can feel protected?

According to Pakistan Christian Post, the Muslim extremists used a type of hard-to-extinguish chemical to torch the Christian homes. This type of chemical was said to also be used during the Sangla Hill incident in 2005. During the infamous Sangla Hill rampage, a 1,000-strong Muslim mob burned churches, Christian homes, a convent, a Christian school, a girls' hostel, a priest's home, Bibles, Christian literature, and crosses.

The chemical was also used to burn about 60 homes in the village of Korian in Punjab province on July 30.

Both the Gojra and Korian attacks were sparked by the allegation from a banned Muslim extremist group that a Christian family had desecrated the Quran. Authorities, however, say initial investigation show that no such desecration of the Islamic holy book took place.

The latest sectarian clash began Thursday, but peaked on Saturday.

"We are now a target in Pakistan," commented Prince Javed, a Pakistani Christian lawmaker. "We are not refugees. This is our own country. We are Pakistanis by birth, so why they are attacking us?"

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari has announced through Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti that the government will pay relatives about $6,000 for each person killed and about $3,600 to those whose houses were burned.

On Monday, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Kobia, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, sent a letter to President Zardari. In the letter, Kobia highlighted Gojra was the third incident of its kind in the last two months in Punjab Province. He said reports he received complain of negligence by police and security forces and of them not taking action against the militant Islamic groups that "constantly threaten" the Christian minorities with false allegations of desecrating the Quran and other claims related to the country's controversial blasphemy laws.

"Your Excellency, the World Council of Churches views the Gojra massacre and the riots that took place over the last three days as a matter of serious concern," Kobia wrote. "We appeal to Your Excellency to take necessary actions against the perpetrators who are responsible for committing grave and unjustifiable attacks against innocent Christian minorities in Gojra."

He also called for greater security measures to protect the small Christian population in Pakistan.

Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan's 176 million people.

The country's Christian leaders have announced a "Black Day" to take place on Aug. 11 to protest the killings of Christians by Muslim extremists. On Black Day, Pakistani Christians will hold peaceful rallies at press clubs throughout the country to protest against the murders and persecution of Christians in Pakistan.

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