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BosNewsLife (12/09/05) – Terrified Christian families in a town of Pakistan ‘s Punjab province anxiously awaited Muslim prayers Friday, December 9, after clerics called for nationwide anti-Christian protests and the public execution of a Christian accused of blasphemy.

The calls for execution followed Pakistan ‘s worst outbreak of anti-Christian violence in recent years in Sangla Hill, about 130 kilometers (80 miles) northeast of Lahore , Pakistan ‘s second largest city.

On November 12, an angry mob destroyed the Roman Catholic, Salvation Army and United Presbyterian churches in Sangla Hill, amid unsubstantiated reports that Christian Yousaf Masih burned pages from the Quran, regarded as a holy book for Muslims.

Christians have said, however, that a Muslim who owed Masih a large amount of money threw a burning match into the room where the Quran was placed. Sangla Hill police reportedly arrested and tortured four of Masih’s six brothers, prompting the alleged blasphemer to give himself up in exchange for their release. Muslim leaders say he should be executed.

As tensions rise, hundreds of Christian families have fled the region, while other Christians remain indoors for fear of attacks after receiving threats, churches, officials and human rights groups said.

In a letter to the governor of Punjab, the archbishop of Lahore , Lawrence Saldanha, expressed copncern that some Muslim religious circles “continue feeding Muslim hatred” towards Christians in Sangla Hill.

It was a reference towards an estimated 3,000 men at the Jamia Masjid Rizvia mosque in Sangla Hill who on Friday December 2 reportedly demanded the death penalty alongside local government officials and Shahibzada Haji Fazal Kareem, a member of Pakistan ’s National Assembly.

The bishop’s letter described the situation in the village “worrisome,” especially at a time when Christmas is fast approaching, the Catholic Internet news agency AsiaNews reported.

While the judicial inquiry has not yet been completed, “they [the Muslim religious leaders] take it for granted that Yousaf Masih is guilty,” he added in the letter released by AsiaNews. Archbishop Saldanha urged the governor to agree that such statements might have “serious repercussions” on an already tense situation.

He said the culprits should be found because “to arrest the innocent is counterproductive.” The bishop stressed it was urgent to abolish blasphemy legislation, which has led to the arrests of Christians and others suspected of disregarding Islam.

However, several Muslim groups have demanded the release of 88 Muslims detained in relation to the violence in Sangla Hill.

Pakistan ‘s President Musharraf condemned the attack on the Christian community but equally condemned the alleged Koran burning. That reportedly angered loyal Christians. They complained the state did not do enough to protect them.

The situation in Sangla Hill has underscored tensions between the Muslim majority and Christians, who comprise roughly less than three percent of Pakistan ‘s population of 150 million.