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Emotions Running Deep Two Years After Anti-Christian Riots In Pakistan

ICC Note

“A number of Pakistani people have shed their blood. They have been the target of extremists who have taken the lives of innocent Pakistanis, but Christians are the main target of these terrorists and extremists. They are the enemies of humanity and their acts must be condemned from all corners. It is utmost need of the day to create a culture of peace and interfaith harmony in Pakistan, otherwise the enemies of humanity can be a serious threat to Pakistan as well.”

08/03/2011 Pakistan (ANS)-A celebration of Holy Mass was led on August 1 at the Catholic Church in Gojra, Pakistan, by Rt. Rev. Bishop Joseph Coutts of the Diocese of Faisalabad, on the second anniversary of the tragic incident of Gojra in which seven members of a Christian family were burned alive, along with dozens of houses raised to the ground, and hundreds of Bibles destroyed.

Gojra is located 30 miles (50 km) from Faisalabad, the third largest city in Pakistan after Karachi and Lahore.

During his message, Bishop Coutts said that “the blood of the martyrs is seed of the church.

“The early Christians were persecuted by the Romans and Jews, (and) before conversion, Paul also persecuted Christians, but Christianity flourished very fast. There is injustice in society, and efforts must be made for a just and peaceful society in Pakistan,” Coutts said.

Several Christian and Muslim speakers expressed their views, with many of the speakers condemning the acts of brutality that caused both loss of human life and loss of property belonging to Christians.

One speaker said: “These innocents are not only Christian martyrs, but also of Pakistan. The blasphemy law has caused severe damages to the soft image of Pakistan in the comity of nations.”

According to an ANS correspondent in Pakistan, only seven blasphemy cases were registered between 1926 and 1985, but after the promulgation of this law by late dictator Zia ul Haq, more than 4,000 cases have been registered so far.

Another speaker said that, “A number of Pakistani people have shed their blood. They have been the target of extremists who have taken the lives of innocent Pakistanis, but Christians are the main target of these terrorists and extremists. They are the enemies of humanity and their acts must be condemned from all corners. It is utmost need of the day to create a culture of peace and interfaith harmony in Pakistan, otherwise the enemies of humanity can be a serious threat to Pakistan as well.”

Father Yaqoob Yousaf, the parish priest of Gojra, told ANS that local Christians of Korian and the Christian Colony in Gojra are “still in a state of fear.” He further said that he has good communication with both the local administration and the Muslim clerics and has been making efforts to calm the state of fear among local Christians. Yousaf organizes seminars and other activities to build a bridge between both of the communities.

A documentary, “Burning Alive, the fate of Pakistani Christians,” which was prepared by a local organization called SHADOW, was also shown to the audience during the program. It revealed the tragedy from a Christian perspective. Many watching could not control their emotions, and they wept openly while watching the horrible scenes of brutality.

Professor Anjum James Paul, Director of the SHADOW Organization which made the film, said that he visited the city to see how much of the tragic incident people there still remember. He said that life was virtually back to normal there.

He told ANS that only Christians, who were experiencing much grief and whose faces were clouded in dismay, were at the location where two years ago many fellow believers were brutally attacked. He added that although many of the houses have been rebuilt, he recalled the burning alive of those who were killed.

All the residents of the Christian Colony in Gojra have returned to their houses, he said, but there remain damaged houses without any residents.

He stated that hundreds of Bibles and many churches were burned to ashes, but nothing has been done to those who were responsible, and all the culprits have been released. He added that the social, political, religious and economic plight of Christians is worsening day by day. “They are waiting for a Messiah to come who may heal them,” he said.

The celebration of Mass came on the anniversary of the day, two years ago, when a group of Islamists set ablaze some 60 Christian houses in Korian village in Toba Tek Singh district at 9 p.m. on Thursday, July 30, 2009, after an accusation of blasphemy was leveled against a young Christian boy, Imran Masih, and his father Talib Masih.

Local Muslim clerics accused the father and son of committing blasphemy and made inflammatory statements against them, thus inciting Muslim residents of Korian and adjoining villages to attack the Christians of the village in order to avenge the alleged blasphemy.

Some 500 Muslims from nearby villages, who were armed with firearms and explosives, attacked the Christians of the village. The Christian residents fled to safety as Muslim clerics announced their verdict to “kill the blasphemers.”

The chemical used by the Muslim mob to set fire to Christian houses was so flammable that it utterly destroyed the houses the rioters targeted. The Muslim mob also took away cattle belonging to the Christians living in the village.

Even after taking out their revenge, the extremists were still angry and became involved in conspiracies against the local Christians. On August 1, 2009 thousands of Muslims of all ages and from different locations gathered. They were again armed with firearms and explosive devices to attack the residents of the Christian Colony in Gojra from all sides. According to eyewitnesses, the police, and the local governing administration, remained silent because they were afraid of the attackers.

Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, the former Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs who was martyred on March 2, 2011, made a speech in parliament on the issue of violence against Christians.

After the violence, he said: “Minorities are sons of the soil. Their forefathers made a sacrifice for the development of Pakistan and minorities have been playing a significant role in the prosperity, development and integrity of the country,” he said.

“The decisive vote of minorities in partition of Punjab contributed towards creation of Pakistan,” he said, adding, “The leadership of Pakistan studied in Christian educational institutions. Christian hospitals have also played a vital role in serving suffering humanity.”

He went on to say, “Considering minorities as their easy and soft targets, extremist elements are targeting them. Minorities always struggled for peace, and no minority member has ever been involved in any act of terrorism and violence — instead they (themselves) become victims of terrorism and violence.

“The incident of Gojra has hampered efforts to promote interfaith harmony and national unity and has tarnished the image of country abroad.”

Bhatti said that the rumor of Christians desecrating the Quran,“had been unnecessarily blown out of proportion.”

Almost two years after the Gojra riots, victims of the violence that erupted there “watched in horror,(as) those accused of causing the mayhem were garlanded and feted in the city’s main market in May as they returned to the town after their acquittal,” the local The Express Tribune (TET) newspaper reported on July 3, 2011.

The newspaper says the acquittals “were the result of a compromise to ‘maintain law and order’ in the area and to ‘move on from the 2009 riots.’

“The witnesses were pressurized (sic), threatened and paid off by an influential politician belonging to the PML-N,” victims and residents allege.

As a result, according to the newspaper, they withdrew their names, changed their stance, or simply refused to testify.

“Peace committee member Adeel told TET that police officers forcibly took witnesses to court hearings and made them change their statements,” the newspaper said.

Apparently, the acquitted suspects are now back home, and residents say it is a matter of time before there is a repeat of the Gojra killings.

The town experienced another “close call” a few weeks ago after a fight between two school-aged boys – a Christian and a Muslim – turned ugly.

The outcome of the trial has only cemented the anger. “This is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” says one resident. “There is no place for us here.”

“There is not a single day where we are not reminded of what happened,” says Pastor William, whose residence and the church were burned down in the Gojra violence. “We were only left with a glass that my daughter was drinking from when she escaped,” he said.

For others, the scars are deeper. One man and his older brother were picked up by the police after the riots. While he says his older brother fired at the attackers and killed one of them, one of them was in Sahiwal during the rioting. The brothers were transferred to the custody of intelligence agencies in Lahore, who tortured the youngest brother for 14 days and asked him to admit that he had fired at the attackers.

The newspaper says the brothers question the state’s involvement and complicity in the riots. One of them pointed out a lane where police officers were reportedly enjoying soft drinks while houses burned, and wondered why Christians from nearby villages were not allowed to enter Gojra, yet masked men from nearby Jhang entered the city and helped attack Christian Colony.

According to the Catholic Church’s Father Yaqoob, cooperation with the local police has improved since the Gojra riots.