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Theological Notebook: The Ongoing Struggle of the Pakistani Church

Priest recounts terror of mob attack on Pakistani church compound

By Declan Walsh
Catholic News Service

SANGLA HILL, Pakistan (CNS) -- An enraged mob was scaling the walls of the Catholic compound in Sangla Hill as Father Samson Dilawar hurriedly ushered his small group into a safe place.

Nine nuns, four teachers and 23 terrified teenage girls huddled inside an upstairs room of the besieged convent as the crowd broke through the gate. Meanwhile, Father Dilawar climbed onto the roof to watch in horror as the crowd systematically destroyed the mission that had taken almost a century to build.

At least 2,000 men, armed with sticks, hammers and containers filled with flammable substances, swarmed across the parish compound Nov. 12.

They broke into the Church of the Holy Spirit, smashing the marble altar, pulling the vestments from their cupboards and shattering the stained-glass windows.

They set Father Dilawar's house on fire before moving on to St. Anthony's Girls School, where most of the 450 students had already been sent home. Soon flames were licking the school walls, and smoke billowed into the sky.

Finally the rioters broke through the convent door and made for the stairs. Father Dilawar retreated into the locked room where the nuns were praying.

The attackers "tried to break the door down but did not succeed. Otherwise, we could have all been killed," he recounted, sitting on a grassy patch outside the vandalized convent.

The violence that swept through Sangla Hill, 140 miles south of the capital, Islamabad, has shocked Pakistan's Christian community and highlighted the failure of the authorities to protect religious minorities.

Two other churches -- one Presbyterian, one Salvation Army -- as well as at least half a dozen houses belonging to Catholic families were also burned in the attack.

The incident was sparked by allegations that a Christian had burned pages from the Muslim holy book, the Quran. The charges against the man, named by police as Yousaf Masih, remain unproven. Friends and family say they stem from a gambling dispute with Muslim men.

On Nov. 16, Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, condemned the attack.

"Muslims need to show more tolerance toward a smaller, minority community," he told reporters.

But human rights campaigners and Catholic leaders say the incident also highlights Musharraf's failure to reform the laws that endanger religious minorities and the reluctance of his Muslim-dominated police force to protect them.

Under Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, desecration of the Quran is punishable by life imprisonment. Insulting the name of the prophet Mohammed carries a mandatory death sentence.

But the law, which can be invoked on the word of one witness, is frequently misused to settle scores, avoid debts or rouse violence against religious minorities.

"The blasphemy law is used and misused to spread fear and terror," said Hina Jilani, a lawyer with the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "It's a tool to be used against anyone you are in conflict with."

Jilani said the abuse is most frequently directed at other Muslims. The second most-affected group is the Ahmedis, an Islamic sect that is subject to discriminatory laws in Pakistan, followed by Christians, she said.

Muslims and Christians agree the blasphemy allegations in Sangla Hill started with a disagreement over a card game Nov. 11. Yousaf, a Christian cattle dealer, was playing cards for money with Kalu Sunaira, a Muslim.

An argument erupted between the two men. Yousaf claimed Sunaira owed him a large debt. Sunaira claimed his rival had set fire to a room containing copies of the Quran in an office owned by an Islamic organization, just a few meters away.

A few hours later, after Friday prayers, Muslims clerics denounced the alleged Quran-burning over the loudspeakers, Father Dilawar said.

By 9 p.m. a crowd had gathered outside the Catholic compound and started to throw stones. Father Dilawar said he called for help.

"I contacted all the officials I knew to request protection. They told me not to worry," he said.

The crowd dispersed but returned the following morning; it had become the attacking mob. Witnesses later told human rights investigators that some of the protesters wore green turbans of the type favored by militant Muslims.

"I can't think what was behind it," said the 68-year-old school headmistress, Sister Anthony Edward, standing before the charred classrooms. "We've never had anything like this before. I feel broken inside."

Of the school's 450 female students, at least 90 percent were Muslim, she added.

Catholic missionaries have educated some of Pakistan's most influential politicians, including Musharraf and the exiled opposition leader, Benazir Bhutto.

When it reached the Catholic compound, the mob had already burned the 103-year-old town Presbyterian church, which the Rev. Tajjamal Pervez had fled 30 minutes earlier.

"This was preplanned," he said, standing amid the blackened ruins of his bedroom. "The burning of the Quran was just an excuse to attack."

Police have detained 88 people in connection with the attacks, but many Christians criticized their failure to halt the violence and say they fear further attacks.

"If the police cannot protect us in broad daylight, then what can we expect of them?" said Javed Masih, a nephew of Yousaf, at his ransacked house.

Provincial authorities have fired all senior police officers in Sangla Hill. Yousaf remains in jail. No formal charges have yet been made, said Arshad Ali, acting police chief of Sangla Hill.

"He is being held outside of the city because of security concerns," he said.

However, two town officials whom Christian leaders allege helped incite the violence have not been arrested.

Christians and Muslims in Sangla Hill said they previously enjoyed good relations.

"We even used to attend each other's weddings," said Botta Masih Shindhu, a local Christian leader. "This is the first time we have seen anything like this in our lifetime."

"The attackers came from outside this town," said Mufti Muhammad Zulfiqar Rizvi, leader of the largest mosque in the city. He denied allegations that the crowd was incited over the mosque loudspeakers.

"I tried to stop them. I told them there should be no violence against any religious house," said the bearded, smiling man. "But they would not listen."

A man holds a cross aloft inside the destroyed Catholic Church of the Holy Spirit in Sangla Hill, Pakistan, after a mob of some 3,000 men torched the church Nov. 12 following allegations that a Christian desecrated the Quran. (CNS/Declan Walsh)
Tags: theological notebook

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