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AsiaNews (03/01/06) – Today is a day of prayer and protest in Sargodha ( Punjab ) where yesterday Basti Noori Gate Presbyterian Church was set on fire. Across Pakistan Christians have reiterated their demand for protection and called on Muslim political and religious leaders to fight violence.

Today’s rally attracted some 500 people, Christians but also members of Punjab ’s Provincial Assembly. Some local Muslims also came to express their solidarity to the targeted community.

Patrick Jacob Gill, a Christian who sits in the Provincial Assembly, told AsiaNews today that unknown people set fire to the Presbyterian church in Sargodha , which is north-west of Lahore .

Gill, who visited the town, said the building’s main entrance and its windows were damaged. The situation is currently under control after security agents began patrolling the premises.

Shahabad Basher, who chairs the Christian Democratic Front, strongly condemned the church attack. He stressed that the people involved “have no religion” and that he government has the responsibility “to provide security to all citizens of Pakistan regardless of cast or creed”.

Since the story of blasphemous cartoons broke out several churches have been attacked in last few weeks.

Yesterday, the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) held a roundtable discussion to address the issue. Mgr Anthony Lobo, archbishop of Rawalpindi and Faisalabad , attended the event as did John Samuel, bishop of Faisalabad in the Church of Pakistan , and Cecil Chadhary, APMA executive secretary.

All participants condemned the publication of the Muhammad caricatures and made an appeal calling on their fellow Pakistanis not to identify the country’s Christian community with the West. “We are Pakistanis first and Pakistanis last,” they said.

They expressed deep sorrow over the attacks against churches in Sangla Hill, Peshawar , Sukkur, and the latest in Sargodha and called upon Muslim religious and political leaders to stop such acts from being repeated and to make sure the culprits are punished. They also stressed the urgency of protecting every citizen’s life and property.