Cartoon Protestors in Pakistan Target Christians

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Muslim leaders asked to differentiate between local Christians and Western media.

by Peter Lamprecht

ISTANBUL, February 20 (Compass) -- Protesting caricatures of the prophet Muhammad first published in Danish media, thousands of demonstrators in northern Pakistan and Lahore last week destroyed private and public property, at times targeting Christians.

All schools were closed for vacation this week in the city of Kasur, 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from Lahore, after a violent mob of several thousand Muslims attacked a United Presbyterian girl’s school following weekly prayers on February 17. The demonstrators broke the school’s windows with bricks and sticks as the 500 students and teachers fled the premises.

The mob also tried to attack the city’s Catholic church but was broken up by police, Father Yaqoob Barkat told Compass from Kasur. Christians “were the only target here, they didn’t harm anybody else,” the priest said.

According to Fr. Barkat, tense calm has returned to the city, with police and paramilitary forces breaking up demonstrations yesterday and this evening, but Christians are living in fear. “Whenever there is something [to make them angry], then they attack all the Christians and all of the churches.”

In Lahore, violent protests against the caricatures of Muhammad last Tuesday and Wednesday (February 14-15) caused massive destruction to Christian and Muslim alike. The city’s Catholic cathedral narrowly missed destruction when tens of thousands demonstrated on Mall Road and attacked Punjab’s provincial Assembly Hall.

After two people died on Tuesday (February 14), Punjab Chief Minister Chaudry Pervaiz Elahi called in the Pakistan Army to restore order and restricted demonstrations to certain areas. But violence and looting continued the next day, leaving one demonstrator dead during clashes with the police.

“Are we trying to convince the West that Muslims are indeed violent people?” the BBC quoted Ellahi as asking.

The Christian owner of an internet café in one of Lahore’s suburbs was arrested on Thursday (February 16) on charges that he had displayed caricatures of the prophet Muhammad at his business. But after further investigation, Station House Officer Mohammad Anwar of Nishtar Town discovered that local Muslim leaders had arranged for someone to pose as another person lodging the complaint, Wasim Muntizar of the Center for Legal Aid and Settlement (CLAAS) told Compass from Lahore.

“Today I met with him [the Christian] and I also met with the complainant, they are both in the same cell,” Muntizar said. “The complainant said that he has been implicated in this whole matter – he didn’t call the police, someone else did, but they just gave his name. Now he is quite ashamed of what has happened.”

According to a CLAAS report, Muslim leaders tried to use the blasphemy allegations to stir up a violent reaction from their followers after Friday prayers but were thwarted when five bus-loads of police were brought in to secure the area. Anwar has agreed to forego pressing charges against the internet café owner but refused to release the Christian until anti-cartoon anger has further died down.

Caught in Cross-fire

In Peshawar, a procession of university students and members of an Islamic organization vandalized missionary school Edward’s College on February 13, according to a report from the National Commission for Peace and Justice (NCJP), a Christian body. Rioters smashed windows with bricks and steel rods, damaging the school’s library, science block, main hall and administrative buildings, the NCJP said.

Two days later 60,000 demonstrators renewed violent riots throughout the city, vandalizing several Christian institutions. According to the NCJP, St. Michael’s Convent School, St. Elizabeth’s Girl’s College and Mission Hospital, run by the Church of Pakistan, were all damaged in the violence.

Two people died in Peshawar’s February 15 demonstrations, which included attacks on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Norwegian mobile firm Telenor and 16 South Korean buses, the Pakistani Daily Times reported. One protestor was electrocuted when a power line snapped under police tear gas fire, and an 8-year-old boy was shot in the face, Dr. Yousaf Pervez of Lady Reading Hospital told the Daily Times.

NCJP Executive Secretary Peter Jacob was quick to explain that in Peshawar the protestors were not targeting Christian institutions, but that the attacks came as part of larger vandalism against Western, Christian and Muslim property alike.

“There is a general sense of insecurity among the Christian community,” Jacob told Compass from Lahore. “But there were no direct attacks specifically on the Christian community.” But he said it was hard to be sure because communication with Peshawar was difficult.

In an effort to protect local Christians from anti-cartoon violence, Lahore Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha sent a letter to Muslim leaders asking them to clarify that Pakistani Christians had nothing to do with the controversy, Jacob said.

“There was a positive response from Dr. Tahil Qaudry, the president of Min Hadil Quran, and also from [District Peace Committee Chairman] Pir Ibrahim Sialvi of Faisalabad,” Jacob commented. According to Jacob, Sialvi made a speech to Muslim leaders on February 12 telling them that Christians were “local people” who had nothing to do with the cartoons.

In contrast to demonstrations in Peshawar and Lahore, a 50,000-strong protest in the southern city of Karachi Thursday was staged without violence. Sunni Muslim organizers repeatedly told protestors that it was against Islam to kill people, attack busses, or burn property, Agence-France Presse reported.

Among others who suffered from anti-cartoon violence were two schools near Peshawar, where anti-cartoon protestors reportedly smashed windows and beat children on February 6 before police quickly moved to halt the attack. In a February 7 report, Pakistan’s National Council of Churches called on the West to condemn the cartoons since they “create problems for Christians living in Muslim countries.”

Ulterior Motives

First printed by Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September as a test of what editor-in-chief Carsten Juste termed “the self-censorship which rules large parts of the Western world,” the 12 cartoons included a drawing of Muhammad as a terrorist with a bomb in his turban. Many Muslims have protested that the cartoons violate basic tenants of Islam, which forbids any depiction of the prophet.

While Pakistani demonstrators have claimed they are protesting against the cartoons and against governments that have allowed their publication, they have been accused of using the demonstrations for ulterior motives.

“Wednesday’s strike provided an opportunity for local businessmen to wreak havoc on their multinational competitors,” Daily Times columnist Ghafar Ali commented on the Peshawar attacks. Ali said that protestors who destroyed South Korean Daewoo buses were led by local transport union leaders who had suffered from the foreign company’s competition.

But foreign businesses were not the only ones attacked during Peshawar and Lahore riots. Local banks, gas stations, movie theaters, music stores, private cars and motorcycles, private residences, internet cafes, schools, shoe stores, and even traffic signs were vandalized by mobs in the two cities.

“Such targets have nothing to do with the cartoons but have historically been the target of choice for religious activists whenever they have had reason to take to the streets,” BBC’s Aamer Ahmed Khan wrote last Thursday (February 16).

It appears that religious elements have seized upon the cartoon furor to pursue their own agenda. At a meeting of Pakistan’s Islamic opposition party on February 15, leaders blamed Pakistan’s government for its inadequate response to the caricatures and called President Pervez Musharraf an “agent of the West,” Pakistani newspaper The Nation reported.

Though leaders of the Mutahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) leaders publicly rejected violence and called for peaceful protests, their student wing was at the same time busy fighting police in Lahore.

MMA contradictions appeared to extend to its leadership in the North West Frontier Province, where government officials said protests must remain peaceful but refused to ban public demonstrations that turned violent in Peshawar.

In a high-level meeting on Wednesday (February 15), Musharraf warned that “anti-social and criminal elements” were trying to exploit the anger over the cartoons, Daily Times reported.

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct