Pakistan's Christians protest lack of protection after deadly rampage

Authorities arrested 100 people and sought 700 more in connection with Saturday's deadly mob attack. Threats against Pakistan's minorities are increasing, watchdog reports.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Pakistani Christians light candles Monday to pay tribute to people in their community who were killed in an attack in Gojra, Pakistan. Hundreds of Muslims, allegedly spurred on by a radical Islamist group, stormed a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Gojra on Saturday, burning dozens of houses after reports surfaced that some Christians had desecrated a Quran. Six Christians died in the flames, while two were killed by gunshots. Police have been accused of doing little to stop the attackers.
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After an anti-Christian rampage left eight people dead in the town of Gojra over the weekend, Pakistani authorities arrested 100 people and offered $6,000 in compensation to victims' families in an effort to reassure the country's Christian minority that they will be protected by the law.

But their response Monday failed to dampen accusations from Christians that the police neglected to protect them. The attackers in eastern Punjab Province also burned homes to the ground.

It was the third attack on Pakistani Christians in the past month, a trend that observers attribute to a rise in extremism and suspicions that local Christians are aligned with the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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Sunni Islamic militants in Pakistan target other minority groups as well, including Shiites and Ahmadis, groups they consider heretics. According to Minority Rights Group International, a UK-based NGO, Pakistan had the world's highest increase of threats against minorities last year and was ranked the seventh most dangerous country for minorities overall.

"People are saying 'We hate Pakistan and we want to leave' – it's truly a terrible thing for community relations," says Joseph Francis, chairman of the Christian Nationalist Party.

Christians protest by shutting schools

According to Pakistani officials the attacking mob was incited by the banned Islamist group Sipah-e-Sahaba, who claimed that Christians had desecrated the Quran. Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said a government investigation showed that allegation to be baseless.

Christian schools closed for three days to mourn the victims of Saturday's attack. Christians in Gojra will mark Aug. 11 – traditionally celebrated as Pakistan's minority day – as a "black day" of mourning, according to Mr. Francis.

Nadeem Anthony, a Christian activist and member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, says the attacks sent shock waves though minority communities: "Of course we feel scared now and unprotected."

'America's dogs'

According to Iqbal Haider, co-chairperson of the HRCP, the attacks are an indication of the unchecked growth of religious extremism. "This has to be a wake-up call for the government. The Gojra tragedy is just the latest – this is a direct consequence of the religious fanaticism that is rampant now all over Pakistan. These extremists are hell-bent upon killing every person who does not support their religious views," he says.

Pakistan's Christians, who make up about 3 percent of the population of 175 million, are generally poorer and less educated than the Muslim majority and face bias in seeking employment.

Like other minorities, they often fall victim to Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which decree that anyone insulting the Quran or Prophet Mohammad is subject to life imprisonment or death, though the latter has never been invoked. Critics charge that the blasphemy laws are often abused to settle petty rivalries against minorities.

Mr. Anthony sees a link between violence against Christians and the US-led war in Afghanistan. "Some people call us traitors because of our faith," he says.

According to Mr. Joseph, the Muslim mob in Gojra had been incited with hate-speech that called Christians "America's dogs."

"Since 9/11, we've felt a lot more at risk," he says. "Whenever we have large gatherings or processions, we have to ask for police protection."

Muslim minorities face greater threat

Still, Christians have it easier than some Pakistani minorities. According to Pakistan's human rights commission in 2008 more than 1000 people died in Sunni-Shiite clashes and three Ahmadis were murdered. Christians did not see any deadly attacks last year, but suffered persecution mainly through the registration of frivolous blasphemy cases against them.

Sipah-e-Sahaba, which authorities say incited the attacks, was originally an anti-Shiite organization and was funded in the past by Pakistan's intelligence services to wage war in Kashmir.

"This is not the work of Muslims. A group of extremists have exploited the situation," said Mr. Sanaullah.

Muslim clerics urged calm and restraint in an appeal published in Pakistani newspapers Monday.

Government condemns the attacks

Pakistan's National Assembly passed a resolution condemning the violence, and Prime Minister Yousef Raza Gilani vowed that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti criticized the police's slow response to violence and said they would be held accountable. On Monday the district coordination officer and district police officer of Toba Tek Singh, where Gojra is located, were suspended and expected to be arrested.

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