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AsiaNews (12/16/05) – Catholics in Sangla Hill in Pakistan will be able to celebrate Christmas in their church repaired after the 12 November attack by a mob of Muslims incited by extremists. These elements continue to fuel high tension in the area with appeals to punish Christians guilty of blasphemy. As a sign of solidarity with the stricken (Christian) community, a national Day of Protest and Prayer will be held on 20 December.

The government of Punjab , home to the village which was attacked, took upon itself the repair of the Church of the Holy Spirit, which will be restored to the community for worship on 22 December. This was announced by the National Justice and Peace Commission which also spread the invitation of the Archbishop of Lahore, Mgr Lawrence Saldanha, to participate in a Day of Protest and Prayer on 20 December in solidarity with Sangla Hill residents. The initiative will be presented today in Islamabad during a press conference organized by the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance.

A letter signed by Peter Jacob, president of the Justice and Peace Commission, and by Mgr Saldanha calls on all “people of goodwill to observe the day of peaceful protest”. The commission reiterates the urgent need to make the population aware of “abuses of the blasphemy law” and calls once again for “concrete action to normalize the tense situation in Sangla Hill”. It also draws attention to the fact that the report of the district court inquiry of Nankana Sahib into the violence on 12 December has not yet been made public, nor have those who instigated the crowd been punished. The inquiry was closed on 28 November; Christians had wanted it to be undertaken by the High Court.

The commitment of the local administration to reconstructing the damaged church is appreciated in the letter. At the same time, there is yet another appeal to cancel the case against Yousaf Masih and all other innocent people – Christians and Muslims – condemned for blasphemy. Masih is held guilty of having desecrated the Koran: this presumed case of blasphemy was the spark which ignited the 12 November attacks against Christian churches and property in the Punjab village. The blasphemy law orders the death penalty for those who desecrate the Koran. In fact, the provision is used to hit out at minorities and to settle personal disputes.

The commission added that if the government does not show itself willing to abrogate the blasphemy law, it would be asked to pay compensation to around 100 people accused of blasphemy who were found to be innocent.

Mgr Saldanha, who is also president of Pakistan ’s Bishops’ Conference, will write a letter to President Pervez Musharraf, to call the leader’s attention to inter-religious tensions in the area.

Meanwhile, at Sangla Hill, the Muslim community persists in calling for the release of 88 people detained in relation to the attack. The community is also asking for the death penalty for Masih. On 9 December, during Friday prayer at the local Jamia mosque, Islamic religious representatives threatened to launch a countrywide protest for the integrity and honor of the Holy Quran if the Christian is not punished.