Spasm of Religious Violence Leaves a Pakistani Minority in Mourning, Frustration

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By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 3, 2009

GOJRA, Pakistan, Aug. 2 -- They do not want to bury the Christians. They want the nation to see them.

By nightfall Sunday, hundreds of residents of the Christian enclave here stood in defiant vigil around seven particleboard coffins neatly aligned on the train tracks that run through town. They had demands: Until the government investigates the killings and finds those responsible, they will not remove the bodies.

Police waited warily in the street. A man on a loudspeaker bellowed the villagers' sentiments, which included anger at provincial authorities for not stopping the killings.

"Death to the Punjab government!"

A spasm of religious violence came to this rural town in the shape of an angry Muslim mob Saturday morning. The Muslims marched to avenge what they believed was the desecration of a Koran one week earlier. When it was over, dozens of houses were torched and Faith Bible Pentecostal Church lay in ruins. Two villagers were shot dead, residents said. Five others, including two children, burned alive.

Killing has become commonplace in Pakistan. But this attack startled the country both for its ferocity and for its stark message to religious minorities. Many saw the violence as further evidence of the growing power of the Taliban and allied Islamist militant groups in Punjab province, home to about half of Pakistan's population.

"They have made up their minds to crush Christianity. They always call us dogs of America, agents of America," said Romar Sardar, an English teacher from the area. "There has been no protection by the police. Nothing."

The conflict apparently began with a wedding. On the evening of July 25, a wedding procession for a Christian couple passed through the nearby village of Korian, according to a police report. Revelers danced and threw money in the air, as is local custom. In the morning, a resident told police he had picked up scraps of paper on the ground and found Arabic writing. "We examined them, and it was the pages from the holy Koran," the man said in the report.

Four days later, the accused, a member of the wedding party named Talib Masih, faced a meeting of local elders, who demanded that he be punished. Instead of repenting, the report said, he denied the desecration, and as a result, "the whole Muslim population was enraged." The house burning began that night and then quieted down until Saturday morning.

That day, Riaz Masih, 68, a retired teacher, grew increasingly worried as a crowd gathered, chanting anti-Christian slogans and cursing Americans. He locked his house and rushed with his wife and children to the home of a Muslim friend nearby. The crowd, some wearing black veils and carrying guns, turned down Masih's narrow brick alley near the train tracks and into the Christian Colony, according to several witnesses. Residents and marchers threw rocks at each other, and gunfire broke out. Using what residents described as gasoline and other flammable chemicals, the mob torched Masih's house.

"We have nothing left," he said, standing in the charred remains of his living room, his daughter's empty jewelry box at his feet. "We are trying to face this in the name of Jesus Christ. The Bible says you cannot take revenge."

On Sunday, the scenes of wreckage and dismay played out in house after house. Residents tossed burned blankets and clothing, broken televisions, and charred beds into heaps on the street. Fruit seller Iqbal Masih, 49, stepped over his mangled carts on his patio and tried to assess what was left of his daughter's dowry. The armoire, a refrigerator, the bedding were burned; the $675 for furniture had disappeared.

"I am out of my mind. I can't look," he said. "They have subjected us to severe cruelties. May God show them the right path."

At least four of the dead came from a single house. As the mob approached, a bullet struck Hamid Masih, a builder, in the head as he stood in his doorway, said his son, Min Has. Has heaved his father onto a motorcycle and drove him to a hospital, while the rest of the family members crowded in a back bedroom. The house began burning, and smoked billowed into the rooms. At least three other relatives, including 5- and 8-year-old siblings, died in the flames, according to residents. "There was fire everywhere, and it was impossible for them to get out," Has said.

"I know one thing. They want to destroy Christians," said Atiq Masih, 22, a janitor who was shot in the right knee. "They were attacking everything."

Christians, who make up about 2 percent of the Punjab population, have been targeted in other recent cases. In June, a mob attacked Christian homes in the Kasur district of Punjab for allegedly dishonoring the prophet Mohammed. In Pakistan, which has strict laws against blasphemy, people can be imprisoned for life or put to death for insulting Islam.

Residents in Gojra said that this was the first incident of its kind in the town and that Christians and Muslims have long lived alongside one another without serious problems. They blamed Muslim clerics for inciting anger over the Koran incident in mosque sermons and accused the Taliban and the militant group Sipah-e-Sahaba of involvement in the attack.

"The provincial government is not accepting that a large part of Punjab is suffering from religious intolerance due to the Taliban and religious outfits," said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace, which issues an annual report on religious minorities in Pakistan. "They have been very negligent. This conflict was brewing for three days, and they were not receptive. They were not taking it seriously."

Pakistan's president and prime minister have called for investigations into the violence. By Sunday, police and paramilitary troops had taken up positions in the town. Provincial authorities said they have already made arrests and registered cases against 800 people. Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti denied that any Koran had been desecrated.

Police in Gojra said the violence Saturday was beyond their control.

"It happened all of a sudden. The police that were here were too few in number to stop it," said policeman Kashif Sadiq. "It's not fair to assume they let this happen intentionally."

Special correspondents Shaiq Hussain and Aoun Sahi contributed to this report.


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