Pakistani Christians alarmed over nationwide protest set for tomorrow.
by Peter Lamprecht
ISTANBUL, December 8 (Compass) – During Friday prayers last week in Pakistan’s Punjab province, Muslim clerics flanked by government officials demanded the public execution of a Christian accused of blasphemy.
Pir Mohammad Afzal Qadri, the head of an Islamist group, has since called for a nationwide protest tomorrow urging the execution of Yousaf Masih, a Christian accused of burning pages from the Quran three weeks ago. The accusations triggered Muslim violence in the Punjabi town of Sangla Hill that destroyed four churches.
Addressing a crowd of 3,000 men at the Jamia Masjid Rizvia mosque in Sangla Hill on Friday (December 2), Qadri demanded the death penalty alongside local government officials and Shahibzada Haji Fazal Kareem, a member of Pakistan’s National Assembly.
With harsh rhetoric, the speakers called for the immediate release of 88 Muslims arrested for attacking and destroying four churches and other Christian property in Sangla Hill on November 12, the day after Masih’s alleged desecration of Islam’s holy book.
Press statements from two radical Muslim groups claimed that media reports of the razing and burning of the churches were “concocted” and that Christian clergy had set their own churches on fire.
To prevent mass violence from resurfacing after last Friday’s speeches, local police reportedly only allowed the mosque-goers to leave the building in small groups, and then flooded the field at the city stadium to prevent them from gathering there.
Meanwhile, Christians locked themselves in their homes after receiving threats from local Muslims that day, reported the Catholic Church’s National Council for Justice and Peace (NCJP).
Despite condemnation of the violence by President Pervez Musharraf, who urged majority Muslims to “show more tolerance,” the Pakistani government has failed to defuse tension between Sangla Hill’s Christian and Muslim communities.
Tomorrow’s planned demonstrations have raised concerns that tensions in Sangla Hill could spill into more violence, this time on a national level.
Pakistan’s Christian communities have persistently campaigned to publicize the Sangla Hill violence, closing down their schools nationwide on November 17 and refusing to clean up or repair the gutted churches for 40 days.
The November 12 church razing was triggered by accusations broadcast from Sangla Hill mosques that Masih, 45, had set fire to a room where old pages of the Quran were stored.
Christian leaders have blamed authorities for using Masih as a scapegoat, since the main witness in the blasphemy investigation later admitted that he had not actually seen the Christian start the fire.
In a joint press statement issued on Monday (December 5), 10 Christian civic organizations called on the government to release Masih, whom they said was “clearly victimized due to his religion.”
“The district of Nankana is simmering with hate-speech against the Christian minority,” observed the NCJP. “The government has done nothing to defuse the tension despite repeated reminders by the community leaders.”
The NCJP’s Peter Jacob told Compass from Islamabad that he met yesterday with the secretary of religious affairs and other government officials. “It was painful to see that they don’t feel the urgency of the situation,” he said.
After what he called last week’s “inflammatory speeches” in Sangla Hill, Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence John Saldanha called on the Chief Minister of Punjab to “inform and engage Muslim religious leadership” in dialogue.
The Christian community questioned the government’s commitment to justice after Chief Minister Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi reneged on a promise that the High Court would investigate the church burnings.
Instead of a high level official that Christians hoped would be impartial, local District and Sessions Judge Sheik Mohammad Yousaf was assigned to conduct the judicial inquiry. Although expedited under anti-terror legislation and concluded on November 29, the inquiry still has not been made public.
Some Christians are skeptical that Elahi will make good on his November 14 promise to pay for the reconstruction of the churches. One NCJP spokesperson, however, told Compass that the government has already begun rebuilding several homes and schools that were destroyed along with the churches.
On December 5, Christian civil rights groups began a publicity campaign to raise awareness of religious intolerance in Pakistan.
The groups are specifically highlighting the abuse of Pakistan’s notorious blasphemy laws in place since 1986. Under this legislation, which makes insulting the prophet Mohammed and desecrating the Quran punishable by death or life imprisonment, blasphemy cases are often opened in local courts as a pretext to settle personal scores.
In a meeting with President Musharraf two weeks ago, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams called upon Islamabad to review the application of its blasphemy laws.
According to a report in the English daily Dawn, the spiritual head of the Anglican Church said he had been assured by the government that problems with the legislation were being “looked at.”
Sangla Hill: Another Reason to Review the Blasphemy Law
Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have bolstered their case with last month’s violence in Sangla Hill, where a gambling debt provoked blasphemy accusations that left four churches in ruins.
On November 11, Catholic Christian Yousaf Masih was gambling with his Muslim friend Saleem Sunihara near the Sangla Hill sports stadium.
The game turned sour over a large debt – 21,000 Pakistan rupees ($321) according to Paskistani news reports, 35,000 rupees ($585) according to Christian civic organizations – that the Muslim owed the Christian.
To avoid paying, Sunihara set fire to old pages of the Quran kept in a nearby storage room and blamed the fire on Masih. Eyewitnesses later told a joint fact-finding team from Jubilee Campaign and the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) that they saw Sunihara throw a burning match into the room.
Word of the fire quickly spread throughout the town, followed by appeals from local mosques for Muslims to defend their religion and “teach the Christians a lesson.”
After the announcements were repeated the next morning from mosque loudspeakers, a crowd of 2,000 Muslims gathered, armed with iron rods, axes and tins of kerosene. Crying “God is great” and “Down with the Christian dogs,” they ransacked and looted four churches, a convent and its chapel, a mission-run school and several Christian homes.
Several hundred Christian families, mostly poor farmers and laborers, fled the area during and after the attack. Christian observers confirmed to the Jubilee and CLAAS teams that they had seen several busloads of Muslim men arriving in Sangla Hill to join the mob that morning.
Upon hearing the first calls from the mosque, Father Samson Dilawar of the local Church of the Holy Spirit had requested police protection. But according to Daily Times reporters, police not only failed to protect the Christian places of worship but joined the crowd in vandalizing the Catholic, Salvation Army and two Presbyterian churches.
Sangla Hill police also arrested and tortured four of Masih’s six brothers, prompting the alleged blasphemer to give himself up in exchange for their release. Although Masih has not been seen since, one source said he is believed to be held at the Sheikhupura jail without access to a lawyer.
The homes of Masih and his brothers were burned to the ground, with no one able to confirm the whereabouts of his wife and three children.
Copyright 2005 Compass Direct