Pakistan: Easter Tense Following Anti-Christian Attack

Monday, April 9, 2007

Muhammad birthday procession turns violent over ‘blasphemy’ rumors.

ISTANBUL (Compass Direct News) -- Pakistani Muslim and Christian leaders are working to defuse tensions in a Punjab city after rumors of “blasphemy” sparked mob action against the Christian community this week.

Celebrants of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s Birthday) in Toba Tek Singh turned violent last Sunday (April 1) in response to false claims that Christian men had attacked Muslims and desecrated a sticker bearing Muhammad’s name, local Christians said.

Muhammad Farhan Latif, a National Assembly representative from Toba Tek Singh, told Compass from Islamabad that his local staff contacted him today with worries of recurring violence.

“Sometimes people try to escalate the situation, so they want my help also to intervene and try to cool them down,” said Latif, who plans to spend the next three days in Toba Tek Singh mediating the conflict.

Local Christian leaders, including Faisalabad Catholic Bishop Joseph Coutts and Catholic priest Father Bonnie Mendes, met with government officials on Wednesday (April 4) in an effort to disprove the “blasphemy” rumors.

Pakistani Christians have reported continued police presence around Toba Tek Singh churches as the faithful prepare to celebrate Easter.

“About 5 percent of Christians have left their houses due to danger,” Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), a Christian non-governmental organization, said in an April 3 report. “Police are there to secure the rest of the Christians, but the Christian people don’t trust the local police.”

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, on Sunday afternoon, stoning houses and “torturing Christian men, women and children,” SLMP noted. Another Christian source confirmed the details of the attack but limited the number of attackers to 80, only a small percentage of the entire procession.

“Christians ran to save their lives, and some of them hid themselves in their houses, but even then the Muslim extremists kept on stoning,” one local Christian, Irum Gill, told SLMP.

She said that “dozens” of Christians had been injured. A handicapped Christian named Ratan Masih was unable to flee the mob and was badly beaten.

Witnesses said local police conducted a baton charge to free Masih and then took the injured man to the police station, where he received first aid. Masih was later admitted to the city’s Civil Hospital.

Christians Accused

Accused of committing “blasphemy” against Muhammad and triggering anti-Christian violence, four Christians have gone into hiding while a fifth, Salamat Masih, remains in police custody.

A First Information Report (FIR) filed with local police on April 1 brought charges of “blasphemy” against Salamat Masih, his son Rashid, 16, and his relatives Sahibah Masih Mota, Shehla Masih and Bao Masih under articles 295-A and 295-C.

Filed by a Muslim neighbor, Abdul Ghafar, the FIR claims that Salamat Masih and his relative, Bao Masih, attacked Ghafar’s nephew while he was on his way to join festivities for Muhammad’s birthday. “They snatched a sticker from his pocket on which …‘Muhammad Prophet of God’ was printed and threw it on the ground and started beating it with their shoes,” Ghafar said.

He told police that Muslim friends had helped his nephew escape the Christian men, but that the attackers soon returned to his house with reinforcements. Armed with a pistol and wooden rods, five Christians “forcibly entered my house by breaking the door and at once started passing derogatory remarks against prophet Muhammad along with abusing my family, Faisal and me,” Ghafar said.

According to Ghafar, two members of his family were injured during the attack and had to receive medical attention. Ghafar reported the incident to a group of Muslims holding a procession in the neighborhood to celebrate Muhammad’s birthday, sparking violence against the Christian community.

Source of Conflict

But local Christians told SLMP that the real source of the conflict was an argument between Salamat Masih’s 11-year-old son, Daniel Masih, and his Muslim friends.

The Muslim children reportedly beat Daniel Masih when he refused to play with them on the morning of April 1, sparking a heated confrontation between Daniel’s mother, Munawar Bibi Masih, and the family of one Muslim child named Sunny.

The Muslim family took offense and reported a false case with police, inciting the Muslim community to violence, Christians told the SLMP.

“It is a totally fabricated case against innocent Christians,” Father Bonnie Mendes, a priest in Toba Tek Singh, told Asia News on Wednesday (April 4).

Salamat Masih, 41, his wife, eight children and two sisters live in Bakshi Park Muslim area of Toba Tek Singh, known for its extremist Islamic groups, local sources said. Most of the community’s Christians live in Mubarakabad and Christian Colony, located on either side of Bakshi Park.

“This area is well known for Muslim militant groups,” a Christian source said. “It is very possible that Muslim extremists can attack churches at any time.”

Latif, Toba Tek Singh’s National Assembly representative, admitted that the area had a reputation for religious extremism but claimed that the city had never seen similar violence.

“There are a lot of people who are deeply associated with religious activities, but there has never been an incident in Toba Tek Singh because people are very educated also,” Latif said.

In April 2004, Christian university student Javed Anjum was kidnapped by Muslim extremists outside a Toba Tek Singh madrassah and tortured for five days until he recited the Muslim creed.

Anjum died from his torture wounds the following month in a Faisalabad hospital. Two of his murderers were handed life-sentences on March 3, 2006.

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