Rayyaz Hussain/Reuters/Landov

Black day

Pakistan | A spate of violence against Christians in Pakistan culminates in live burning of victims

Issue: "The ABCs of C Street," Aug. 29, 2009

The accused are considered guilty until proven innocent in Pakistan. And in a country where blasphemy laws allow for severe punishment or death for insulting Islam, Muhammad, or the Quran, rumors can carry the weight of law, spreading like wildfire and igniting a wave of violence against the country's small Christian minority.

That's what happened in Pakistan's Punjab province, where militant groups are using accusations of blasphemy to spark attacks against Christian communities. One of the riots began last month when local mosques broadcast rumors that Christians had desecrated the Quran. The ensuing attack left hundreds of homes destroyed and at least seven Christians, including women and children, dead in the town of Gojra. Witnesses said security forces were slow to respond, and local media characterized the attacks as "Christian and Muslim rioting"-a misleading but nonetheless disturbing trend in a nation some say is slowly slipping into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Another wave of accusations and violence began with a Christian wedding in the village of Korian on July 25. A Christian resident of Korian who identified himself only as Shabir told Compass News that a Muslim funeral was taking place at the same time, and wedding celebrants were told to stop their music.

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The wedding proceeded, and the next day Muslims confronted the parents of the bride, accusing their sons of cutting pages out of the Quran the size of currency notes and throwing them in the air during the celebration (it's a common custom to throw coins and currency notes in the air for children to catch during a wedding). The parents denied the accusations but said their sons would apologize if the rumors were found true.

The Muslims responded by beating the father, Talib Masih, and by July 30 incitement to violence spread to local mosques. No proof of the blasphemy charges was found, but Muslim clerics announced from loudspeakers that "if any Christian wanted to save his or her life, then get out of here or they would be killed," Shabir said.

A mob of more than 500 Muslims responded to the incitements by attacking Christians in Toba Tek Singh district. Sources say the mob torched more than 60 homes, and most Christians fled. Baba Sharif Masih, 80, and his wife, 73-year-old Hanifa Bibi, were unable to run and so pleaded for their lives. The mob spared them: "Our house is burnt and everything is gone." Now, Masih told Compass, "Muslim neighbors around are not willing to give us a loaf of bread or a sip of water."

Two days later, similar blasphemy rumors led to a massive rampage seven miles away in the town of Gojra. Authorities cleared an accused Christian of blasphemy charges, but that didn't stop thousands of militants (some authorities said up to 20,000) armed with fuel and weapons from advancing on the town's Christian neighborhood. They looted and torched more than 100 homes during the eight-hour attack.

The Hameed family lived at the entrance to the area and was eating breakfast when the riots began. When 75-year-old Punnan Kahn Hameed opened the door to see what was happening, he was shot dead. The rest of the Christian family fled to the back of the house but soon saw plumes of smoke and realized they were trapped in a burning house.

New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise spoke with Ikhlaq Hameed, one of the few family members who survived. He described the frantic scene as they tried to escape, recalling the final images of his aunt as he turned to see her engulfed in flames. Three women, two children, and one man were killed as the roof collapsed in flames.

Some reports say the total number of dead in the attacks reached 14 after burn victims were unable to reach hospitals because of roadblocks set up by Muslim militants.

Christians took to the streets the following day, refusing to quickly bury the dead, as officials had requested, until the government filed a case against two security officers who failed to take action against the mob. Coffins lined railroad tracks for three hours until authorities added the security officers to the formal complaint filed against 20 named and 800 unnamed people accused of instigating and carrying out the violence.

"The Pakistan government always turns a blind eye when Christians are the victims," said Nazir Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress. "They provide ample time to militants to kill Christians and burn their properties. The administration moves when the militants have completed the destruction of Christian properties."


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