Pakistani Christians Mourn Over Attacks, Declare Strike against Blasphemy Law

The violent burning of churches has provoked reaction of Christians from all of the country and the world.

The violent burning of churches in a rural village in Pakistan last Saturday has provoked reaction of Christians from all of the country and the world.

According to the U.K.-based human rights watchdog Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), leading church leaders in Pakistan announced on Monday that all Christian schools will be closed on Thursday, Nov. 17, in protest at the allegedly schematic attacks and destructions on Christian properties by a 1,000- to 2,000-strong Muslim mob in Sangla Hill village, Punjab, eastern Pakistan.

Three churches, a convent, a Christian School, a girls' hostel and a priest's home are reportedly to "have turned into ashes" as a result of a hour-long rampage. The mob had even burned Bibles, Christian literature, crosses and other Christian materials, and set fire to Christian homes, CSW reports.

All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), which has sent a team to the troubled area, said "Christian residents fled to save their lives". Even though no injuries or deaths were incurred, CSW says APMA has declared seven days of nationwide mourning.

In an open letter to the Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, obtained by the Italy-based Catholic news agency AsiaNews, four leading Pakistani church leaders demanded a "high-level judicial inquiry" and "exemplary punishment to all the culprits responsible for this deliberate outrage."

The signers of the letter included Mgr Lawrence John Saldanha, Catholic Archbishop of Lahore and President Catholic Bishops’ Conference; the Rev. Alexander J. Malik, Moderator of the Church of Pakistan; Victor Azariah of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan; and the Col. Gulzar Patras, Territorial Commander of the Salvation Army.

By using previous reports of Pakistani news agencies, the leaders gave evidence of the allegedly schematic attacks as well as the authorities’ negligence and unjust treatment towards Christians.

Regarding the charge of blasphemy against a Christian named Yusaf Masih, who allegedly desecrated the Koran and triggered the anger of Muslims, church leaders called it a "baseless rumor."

“The fact of the matter is that Yusaf was playing a game with two Muslims who lost a large sum of money. They asked him to return the money back and when he refused, they turned round and accused him of burning the Quran," stated the letter to the Pakistani President.

The church leaders also raised their concern over the blasphemy law, calling for a total repeal.

"The incident sharply reveals the ineffectiveness of the new rules of the Blasphemy law," they explained.

The statement echoed a previous comment made by the Catholic Archbishop of Lahore, Lawrence Saldanha, immediately after the attack.

"Pakistan's blasphemy laws are the main sources and tools for creating social, sectarian and inter-religious disharmony,” Saldanha had said. “It is negligence on the part of the ministries responsible, who allow the misuse [of the blasphemy laws] at such a large scale, causing a huge amount of injustice."

Mervyn Thomas, CSW's Chief Executive, also made a similar comment, saying in a released statement that the violence “demonstrates how badly misused the blasphemy laws have been.”

“The rights of religious minorities have been neglected for too long. The time has come for Pakistan to repeal the blasphemy laws, and work for equal rights for all religious communities."

In their letter to President, the church leaders also accused certain maulvis (Muslim clerics) for inciting the people on the mosque loudspeakers on Friday evening, the night before the attack happened.

Furthermore, they recalled that a parish priest, Fr Samson Dilawar, had informed the police about the threat, but the police had ignored him.

"They have deliberately neglected their duty, even after being warned," the church leaders stated, openly criticizing the authorities in the letter.

In the end, the letter condemned the attacks as "acts of terrorism against a weak and defenseless religious minority."

The church leaders announced to the President their strike on Thursday, adding that if no actions are taken by the government, others forms of protest will be followed.

According to AsiaNews, a team of nine leading church leaders from both Catholic and Protestant traditions in Pakistan expressed solidarity through a visit to the Christian community of Sangla Hill on Monday.

In the wake of the attacks, trauma immediately spread among the tiny Christian community in Sangla Hill. Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian who heads APMA, told the Associated Press (AP) Monday that about 80 percent of the village's 1,000 Christians fled their homes.

The National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), meanwhile, reported that over 450 Christian families had already fled the night prior to the attack after receiving threats, according to CSW.

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