By Father John Flynn, LC
ROME, AUG. 23, 2009 (Zenit.org).- For many in Europe and North America the last weeks have been ones of vacation and rest. For Christians in Pakistan, however, it’s been a time of renewed violence and death.
On July 30 a mob made up of members of a banned extremist Muslim organization, Sipah-e-Sahaba, began torching Christian homes in a village in the Punjabi city of Gojra, the Associated Press reported Aug. 1. The attack followed allegations that a Quran had been defaced.
About 40 houses belonging to Christians were burned; six Christians were killed trapped inside one of them.
”The religious riots … are frightening, where Islamic religious zealots have taken the law into their own hands,” Mehdi Hassan, deputy head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said in a statement quoted by the Associated Press.
According to a report published July 31 by an Asian Catholic news agency, UCAN, the violence came in the wake of an attack on the nearby Christian village of Korian on July 30. Korian was home to about 100 Christian families, most of them laborers.
The UCAN report put the number of destroyed houses in Korian at 60 and it also said that two churches belonging to the Church of Pakistan and the New Apostolic Church were destroyed.
Christian politicians and Catholic priests condemned the attacks and demanded an investigation of the assaults. A group of seven Catholic priests went to visit the site, reported UCAN.
“One cannot but weep upon seeing the trail of destruction left behind,” Father Aftab James Paul, director of Faisalabad Diocese’s Commission for Interfaith Dialogue, told the agency.
Benedict XVI sent a telegram to the Church in Pakistan following the killings, reported Vatican Radio, Aug. 4. The Vatican report put at eight the number of deaths. In sending his condolences, the Pope asked the bishops to encourage the diocesan community and all Christians in Pakistan.
The Pontiff said Christians should not be deterred in their efforts to help build a society which with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members, said Vatican Radio.
In an Aug. 3 report the New York Times gave more details on those who died. Seven members of the Hameed family died, six burned to death, and one shot by the mob. As the house burned, the mob outside threatened the family with death if they tried to leave.
According to the New York Times more than 100 houses of Christians were burned and looted over a period of around eight hours.
The article also drew attention to the discrimination against Christians in Pakistan. With a few exceptions most of them are relegated to the most menial tasks, such as street cleaners.
Another problem is the law against blasphemy, which is often used to provoke hatred of Christians.
“The blasphemy law is being used to terrorize minorities in Pakistan,” said Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s minister of minority affairs, in an interview in Gojra on Sunday, the New York Times reported.
In fact, events in the months before the riot at Gojra give witness to the minister’s words. On May 13 the Associated Press reported that violent assaults against religious minorities are growing, due the increased influence of the Taliban.
The article said that in dozens of interviews from around the country minorities told of attacks and threats and expressed an overwhelming sense of fear.
Religious minorities represent about 5% of Pakistan’s 160 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook.
One graphic case was the subject of a May 6 report by an agency specializing in news of Christian persecution, Compass News Direct. Hector Aleem, a Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam, was denied bail for his own safety, after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.
“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant. According to the article even the judge is in fear of his life from extremists if he does not convict Aleem.
Pakistani Christians reacted to the latest attack by declaring they were closing their schools and colleges across the country for three days, the Associated Press reported Aug. 3.
The article also mentioned that Gojra is in Pakistan’s Faisalabad region, which is dotted with hard-line Islamist schools. The Sipah-e-Sahaba group that was said to be responsible for the rioting has an offshoot group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, that is linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida, according to the Associated Press.
However, in addition to the protests, the Church is making efforts to bring about peace, reported the UCAN agency, Aug. 3.
The Catholic Church has formed a committee made up of two bishops, three Catholic priests and several councilors, who are meeting politicians and Muslim clerics to stop any further violence.
On Aug. 6 UCAN reported that Pakistan’s Catholic bishops are urging the government to repeal the blasphemy laws, saying they are being misused and causing problems for minorities in Pakistan.
During an Aug. 4 press conference, held at the Karachi Press Club, Archbishop Evarist Pinto of Karachi demanded that the government abolish the blasphemy laws, make public the findings of its enquiry commission, and provide immediate compensation to victims of the attack on Gojra village on Aug 1.
These laws make an insult to the Quran an offense punishable by up to life imprisonment, while giving the death penalty for anyone convicted of insulting Prophet Muhammad, according to UCAN.
One of the Masses held following the events at Gojra took place at the Sacred Heart church in the town, reported UCAN, Aug. 10.
During the Mass Bishop John Samuel of Faisalabad, commented that: “While we believe those killed for their faith go to heaven, there are those who kill others for the promise of heaven.”
“Only the Word of God can bring comfort to our heavy hearts,” he added.
UCAN also reported that, according to Church sources, the death toll from the rioting has risen to 10, including three children and three women. Police have arrested 80 Muslims for the attacks and a police post has now been established in Gojra.
New model needed
On Aug. 13, L’Osservatore Romano published an interview with the Holy See’s nuncio in Pakistan, Archbishop Adolfo Tito Yllana.
The nuncio called for a new cultural model in Pakistan. It’s not just a question of changing laws, he said, although he did criticize the law on blasphemy. At a deeper level there needs to be a dialogue that leads to a transformation of society to bring about reconciliation and peace, he explained.
The Vatican official also pointed out that it is not only Christians who are persecuted in Pakistan. Other minorities, such as Sikhs, also suffer.
This dialogue is not something just for religious leaders, the nuncio added, but must involve the whole population if there is to be a transformation of society. The dialogue must lead to a change in mentality, so that there is a culture of tolerance, he commented.
It’s not just a matter of occasional violent outbursts such as the killings in Gojra, the nuncio added. There are many episodes of intolerance in the villages and cities of Pakistan, but often they go unreported by the media.
We need to help Muslims change their perception of Christians, the nuncio concluded. A goal that will certainly be difficult to achieve given the current situation in Pakistan.