By Jawad Mazhar, BosNewsLife Special Correspondent reporting from Pakistan
GOJRA, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– Christians across Pakistan closed their schools Monday, August 3, to mourn the killings of at least eight fellow believers by angry Muslims in troubled Punjab province, as the Vatican condemned what was the second incident of violence against Christians in a week.
Hundreds of Muslims, allegedly spurred on by a radical Islamists, stormed a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Gojra on Saturday, August 1, burning dozens of houses after reports surfaced that some Christians had desecrated a Quran, viewed as a holy book by Muslims, witnesses said.
Local Christians said clerics at local mosques urged followers “who love Mohammad and Islam to gather with them to defend the Islam because it is in danger” and “prove to be a true Muslim.”
At least six Christians were killed in the flames of burning homes, including three women, local Christians said. Additionally at least two were killed by gun shots and dozens injured as police did little to stop the attackers, according to news reporters. The government has deployed special forces in the area, officials said.
In a telegram Monday, August 3, Pope Benedict XVI said he was “deeply grieved” to hear of the “senseless attack.” He sent his condolences to families of the victims and urged 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.”
The attack followed violence in the town of Korian Thursday, July 30, where homes of local Christians were torched, churches vandalised and Bibles desecrated, after an apparent allegation that a copy of the Quran had been burned during a Christian wedding.
“We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern,” Bishop Sadiq Daniel told The Associated Press news agency, noting the move was a peaceful tactic. “We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice.” It was not immediately clear exactly how many schools would be closed.
Officials have blamed the attacks on the banned Sunni Muslim extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan. There was no immediate reaction from the group Monday, August 3.
Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Pakistan’s president, said a judicial panel will probe the incident. Christians make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan’s 175 million people and rights groups say extremists 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. Analysts say the anti-minority phenomenon seems to be getting worse as the Taliban militancy has gained strength in Pakistan.
Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, ranked Pakistan last year as the world’s top country for major increases in threats to minorities from 2007 — along with Sri Lanka, which was embroiled in civil war. The group lists Pakistan as seventh on the list of 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar 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 Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.
Anyone can make an accusation under the law, and it is often used to settle personal scores and rivalries, rights groups say.
Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, has said the government would rebuild the burned homes and offer financial assistance to victims. Bhatti criticized the police’s slow response and promised they would be held accountable. He also said a weeklong celebration of minority rights planned for later this month was canceled.
Gojra is in Pakistan’s Faisalabad region, which is dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.
Also Monday, 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, news reports said. The court did not set a date for another hearing, leaving Hafiz Saeed free.
Saeed helped set up Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned extremist group India says plotted the attacks that killed 166 people. He was put under house arrest for a few months this year, but freed in June after a court decided there was not enough evidence against him.
The government appealed that ruling while pressing India for more evidence. Monday’s adjournment came because the provincial government chief prosecutor has resigned and no one was there in his place, trial observers said. (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Stefan J. Bos).