National lawmakers in Islamabad on Monday condemned the mob violence, which left seven Christians dead, and called it a conspiracy aimed at defaming Islam. Government ministers said there was no evidence that a copy of the Koran was desecrated – the supposed trigger for the attack – and they spoke about a plot to disturb inter-religious harmony.
President Asif Ali Zardari promised financial compensation for the victims and families while some officials accused the police of not acting to stop the violence.
But amid the furor, the only calls for the blasphemy laws to be thrown out are coming from the Christian minority.
Muslims angered by claims that a Koran had been defaced during a wedding at a Christian home in Punjab province attacked scores of houses in a village called Korian on Thursday, incited by announcements made over mosque loudspeakers, Pakistani media reported.
Barnabas Fund, a Christian charity supporting Christian minorities in Islamic countries, said churches were vandalized and Bibles desecrated during the attacks, although no one was injured.
A second day of violence on Saturday saw more than 800 Muslims, some armed with sticks and guns, attack Christians in the nearby town of Gojra, looting, vandalizing and torching homes. Seven people were killed, either burned or shot to death.
A wire service report said they included five members of one family – children aged six and 13, their parents, and an elderly grandfather, while the minister responsible for minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, said the dead were four women, two men and a child.
Bhatti also said about 50 houses were burned down, and more than 100 were looted. The World Council of Churches described the attack as “intensive and organized” and Pope Benedict XVI called it “senseless.”
“There are indications that the attack on the two areas was planned,” Barnabas Fund reported. “According to one local Christian, those in surrounding villages and towns began receiving threats as Muslim clerics started preaching hatred and revenge.”
Punjab’s provincial police chief Tariq Salim Dogar said 64 people had been arrested in connection with the attacks.
Christian organizations declared three days of mourning and shut all Christian schools for that period. They also announced plans to mark a “black day” on August 11 to protest the persecution of Christians in Pakistan.
Gojra, a town which includes an enclave of some 2,000 Christian families, is located about 100 miles west of Lahore, the capital of Punjab and Pakistan’s second-largest city.
The blasphemy sections of Pakistan’s penal code, introduced in 1986, outlaw desecrating the Koran and insulting the name of the Muslim prophet, Mohammed. The offenses are punishable by death or life imprisonment.
Although legal groups say the death penalty has not been applied, the laws have made life difficult for the Christian minority, which makes up some three percent of Pakistan’s 175 million people.
Nazir Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress and editor of the Pakistan Christian Post, says implementation of the laws put “an end to religious freedom and harmony among different religious communities.”
In cases of business rivalry or personal grudges, members of the Muslim majority found the laws a convenient pretext to use against Christians. Critics say the existence of the laws is seen as justification by Muslims who choose to act themselves against supposed offenders.
Christians are not uniquely targeted. A study several years ago found that about 23 percent of formal blasphemy cases recorded up until 2004 were against Christians, compared to 54 percent against Muslims, 21 percent against Ahmadis – an Islamic sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims – and one percent against Hindus.
Although most cases were brought by Muslims against other Muslims, given their size the Christian and Ahmadi communities are disproportionately targeted.
Cases have been reported in which Muslims have stormed police stations or courtrooms to demand tough penalties against accused Christians.
In one notorious case, a High Court judge in Lahore was shot to death in his chambers in 1997 after acquitting two people who had been convicted of blasphemy by a lower court. A number of other judges and lawyers involved in blasphemy cases have been targeted in drive-by shootings.
‘Repeal the laws’
In 2005, a Muslim mob attacked Christians in Sangla Hill, a town south of Islamabad, after clerics broadcast over mosque loudspeakers claims that a Christian had desecrated a copy of the Koran.
Catholic, Presbyterian and Salvation Army churches along with a convent school, a hostel for nuns and several houses were attacked, and hundreds of Christians fled for their lives.
At the time, President Pervez Musharraf condemned the violence, but in what was seen as an attempt to appease powerful Islamist parties he also denounced the alleged mistreatment of the Koran, exacerbating Christians’ concerns.
This time, members of the government from Zardari down have condemned the violence and voiced support for Christians.
But amending or repealing the blasphemy laws has not been on the government’s agenda, despite growing calls by Christian leaders. Islamist politicians have in the past charged that campaigns against the laws are part of a western conspiracy against Islam.
The head of Catholic Church in Pakistan, Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha, in a statement issued on behalf of the church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, called on the government to address what he called the root causes of religious intolerance.
Citing earlier incidents including the one in Sangla Hill, he said whenever Christians were attacked the culprits were arrested but never brought to justice.
A long-term remedy to the problem would require the federal government seriously to consider repealing the blasphemy laws, and provincial governments to act to stamp out religious extremism, he said.
The secretary-general of the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC), Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, issued a statement saying that if the allegations were true, the desecration of the Koran “was to be condemned, but violent reprisal could not be condoned.”
He said the attacks against Christians were “contrary to the principle of tolerance in Islam and those involved were undermining and tarnishing the image of Islam.”
Although he did not refer to reported incitement from mosques, Ihsanoglu called on community leaders to play a responsible role.
Pakistan’s foreign office in a statement said the government was “firmly committed to protecting the fundamental rights of all its citizens and to promoting tolerance, understanding and harmony among all religions.”