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7/16/07 Pakistan (Compass Direct News) – Muslims have apologized for attacking a church last month in Pakistan’s Punjab region, but they offered no compensation for injuring Christians and damaging the building.

In addition to wounding seven Christians and destroying books at the Salvation Army church in Chak 248, a village 20 miles north of Faisalabad, the perpetrators admitted that a Muslim resident had planned to burn a page of the Quran – punishable with life imprisonment under Pakistani law – and blame the Christian community.

“We are sorry and promise that this will not happen in the future,” Faizur Rehman, one of 41 Muslims originally accused with attacking the church on June 17, said in a June 28 notarized affidavit.

“The Christian people have forgiven them,” lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu, legal representative for the Christian community, told Compass after attending the June 28 meeting between the Christian and Muslim groups, arbitrated by 12 local Christian and Muslim politicians. He said that both parties had dropped court cases in which they accused each other of instigating violence, though he admitted he was not in favor of the out-of-court settlement.

“This is called impunity,” the lawyer protested.

The mob stormed Chak 248’s lone church with guns, axes and wooden sticks at 5 p.m. on June 17, a Sunday, only one hour before the start of an evangelistic meeting. Christians inside the building fought back but were unable to prevent many of the congregation’s Bibles and hymn books from being destroyed. Several Christians, hit with the blunt side of an axe, suffered broken bones.

Armed Muslims had broken into the home of Christian Sawar Masih the previous evening, June 16, and injured his teenage son, Shahbaz, and daughter, Robeela. They warned Masih, a member of the group organizing the outreach event, to cancel the meeting.

But local Christians, fewer than 50 families in the village of 10,000 residents, decided to go ahead with the program, encouraged by having received written permission from the union council to broadcast the sermon by loudspeaker from the church roof.

Following the violence, many Christians fled their homes in fear that reprisal attacks would follow, only registering a police complaint with the help of a Christian lawyer on June 19.

According to local Muslims, their fears were not unfounded. In the June 28 affidavit, Faizur Rehman said that one Muslim resident, identified only as Gogi, had planned to burn a page of the Quran to “teach a lesson to the Christians.”

Mob Justice

The village’s Muslim representatives promised to debunk any future accusations that Christians had blasphemed against the Quran.

Punishable with life imprisonment under the country’s penal code, blasphemy against the Quran is an emotionally charged issue that often triggers mob action in Pakistan.

Last October in Faisalabad, more than 500 angry Muslims attempted to lynch two elderly Christians accused of unintentionally burning pages of the Quran. Following a trial that drew crowds of religious fanatics, James and Buta Masih were convicted in November and handed 10-year prison sentences.

Critics of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have pointed out that they are easily abused, with unsubstantiated accusations often landing innocent victims in jail or subjecting them to mob violence.

In a recent attempt to amend the legislation in May, National Assembly Member M.P. Bhandara, a member of Pakistan’s tiny Parsi community, noted that the law discriminates against non-Muslims, as it provides the death penalty for blaspheming Muhammad but only minor punishments for insulting other faiths.

“Islam is our religion, and such bills hurt our feelings,” Parliamentary Affairs Minister Dr. Sher Afgan Khan Niazi said in response to Bhandara’s proposed reforms. The reform bill was scrapped on May 8, the same day it was proposed.

In light of the highly charged atmosphere surrounding “blasphemy,” and with Muslim extremists enraged over the government’s crackdown on Islamabad’s Red Mosque, Sindhu said that the out-of-court settlement in Chak 248, though unfair, was prudent.

Authorities had shown an obvious bias against Christians from the Salvation Army church when they had attempted to register their complaint, the Muslim attackers admitted.

Policeman Rana Attaur Rehman had falsely written in the incident’s First Information Report that the Christian complainant had turned the event into a religious issue in hopes of gaining asylum abroad, the June 28 affidavit stated.

“Everything is safe now,” Sindhu commented. And the affidavit, he said, “it will be evidence for the future.”