Christian Pakistanis shut their schools
Protest follows deadly attacks
ISLAMABAD - Pakistani Christians were closing their schools across the country for three days starting yesterday to protest the killings of eight members of their community by Muslims, violence that drew condemnation from Pope Benedict XVI.
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 Koran.
Six Christians died in the flames, while two were killed by gunshots as police did little to stop the attackers.
Christian leaders and Rana Sanaullah, the Punjab law minister, said an initial investigation had debunked the Koran defilement rumor.
“We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern,’’ Bishop Sadiq Daniel told the Associated Press, pointing out that the move was a peaceful tactic. “We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice.’’
In a telegram yesterday, the pope said he was “deeply grieved’’ to hear of the “senseless attack.’’
Benedict sent his condolences to families of the victims and called on Christians “not to be deterred in their efforts to help build a society which, with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members.’’
In a statement, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the violence in the “strongest words.’’
Paramilitary troops and other security forces were patrolling the city yesterday. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Pakistan’s president, said a judicial panel will probe the episode. It was not immediately clear exactly how many schools would be shuttered.
Christians make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million people, and they generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbors.
Extremists, however, have made Christians and other minority religious groups a target. Earlier this summer in the Kasur area, a group of Muslims set fire to dozens of Christian homes, according to local news accounts.
Shi’ite Muslims, also a minority when compared with the Sunni sect of Islam, are also often targeted, although Sunnis, too, have been targeted in the past by Shi’ite extremists. But the antiminority phenomenon seems to be getting worse as the Taliban militancy has gained strength in Pakistan.
Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, lists Pakistan seventh on the list of the world’s 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Burma, and Congo.
Christians and other minority religious groups also are especially vulnerable to discriminatory laws, including an edict against blasphemy that carries the death penalty for derogatory remarks or any other action against Islam, the Koran, or the Prophet Muhammad.
Anyone can make an accusation under the law, and it is often used to settle personal scores and rivalries.
The latest attacks on Christians began Thursday following reports that a copy of the Koran had been defiled. Hundreds of Muslim protesters set fire to several Christians’ houses in the first two days, but the violence reached its peak Saturday.
Officials have blamed the attacks on a banned Sunni Muslim extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.
“This is not the work of Muslims. A group of extremists have exploited the situation,’’ Sanaullah told a group of Christians after the funeral prayers for the deceased Sunday night. “I also want to appeal to both the communities to remain calm. Please do not become a tool in the hands of some miscreants.’’
Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, said yesterday the government will rebuild the burned homes and offer financial assistance to victims. Bhatti criticized the slow response by police and promised they will be held accountable. He also said a weeklong celebration of minority rights planned for later this month is canceled.
Gojra is in Pakistan’s Faisalabad region, which is dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.
Also yesterday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court adjourned a hearing on whether to detain a man suspected to have played a role in last year’s attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. The court did not set a date for another hearing, leaving Hafiz Saeed free.