GOJRA, Pakistan – Almas Hameed grabbed his 7-year-old daughter and stumbled out of their smoke-filled home as she pleaded in vain to bring her pet parrots. His wife, father and two other children did not survive.
Outside, hundreds of enraged Muslims called the victims “dogs” as they fired guns and burned house after house in the Christian neighbourhood of this eastern Pakistani city. The weekend rampage left eight Christians dead. All but one were relatives of Hameed.
“We always live in fear,” said Hameed, 50. “I wonder if I will see a time in this country when I can live like an equal citizen.”
The attack, which Pakistani officials said was incited by a radical Islamist group, followed rumours that some Christians had desecrated a Qur’an – an act regarded as sacrilege by Muslims. The violence drew condemnation Monday from the prime minister and the pope, a chilling reminder of how religious extremism has left minority religious groups in this country increasingly vulnerable.
On Monday, paramilitary troops patrolled near the dozens of targeted houses, with their blackened walls, charred furniture, and twisted ceiling fans. Six people died in the fires, two by gunshots.
Authorities urged calm and promised that local police would be investigated for their inability to stop the violence, which spiraled even after an initial probe debunked the rumour that a Qur’an had been defiled.
“It was like hell. Nobody was coming to help us,” said Atique Masih, a 23-year-old Christian who was shot in his right leg.
Christian schools across the country closed for three days starting Monday.
“We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern,” Bishop Sadiq Daniel told The Associated Press, emphasizing the move was a peaceful tactic. “We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice.”
In a telegram, Pope Benedict XVI said he was “deeply grieved” to hear of the “senseless attack.”
Benedict sent his condolences to families of the victims and called on the Christians “not to be deterred in their efforts to help build a society which, with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members.”
Christians – Protestants and Catholics among them – make up less than 5 per cent of Muslim-majority Pakistan’s 175 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. They generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbours.
Extremists, however, have made Christians and other minority religious groups a target. Earlier this summer in the Kasur area, for instance, Muslims set fire to dozens of Christian homes, according to local news accounts.
The anti-minority phenomenon seems to be getting worse as Taliban militancy has gained strength.
In March, the Taliban issued an ultimatum to the leaders of more than 25 Sikh families in a tribal region near the Afghan border: Convert to Islam and join the jihad or pay 5 billion rupees – roughly $62 million – for protection.
Gojra, a small city about 220 miles (354 kilometres) southwest of the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, lies in a region dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.
The anti-Christian riots began Thursday and reached their peak Saturday, when Hameed’s home was torched.
Officials said the carnage was spearheaded by members of the banned Sunni Muslim extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan, which more frequently targets minority Shiite Muslims.
Its offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida, and was believed involved in the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and two failed assassination attempts against former President Pervez Musharraf.
Minority Rights Group International, a watchdog organization, ranked Pakistan last year as the world’s top country for major increases in threats to minorities from 2007 – along with Sri Lanka, which was engaged in a civil war. The group lists Pakistan as seventh on the list of 10 most dangerous countries for minorities, after Somalia, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar and Congo.
Christians and other minority religious groups in Pakistan are especially vulnerable to discriminatory laws, including an edict against blasphemy that carries the death penalty for derogatory remarks or any other action against Islam, the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad.
Anyone can make an accusation under the law, and it is often used to settle personal scores and rivalries.
In Gojra, Hafiz Mohammad Shahbaz, a prayer leader at a mosque, said police briefly detained a Christian in the Qur’an defilement case but later set him free. That caused concern among the Muslim community, he said.
Shahbaz alleged that a peaceful rally of Muslims to protest the incident was passing by the Christian neighbourhood Saturday when the Christians fired shots at its participants. “That triggered the violence,” he said, calling the killing that ensued un-Islamic.
Hameed, however, said mosque prayer leaders on Saturday stirred the pot by calling for every Christian to be killed. Christians repeatedly sought police help but to no avail, he said.
Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said Monday that the government would rebuild the burned homes and offer financial assistance to victims. Bhatti criticized the police’s slow response and promised they would be held accountable. He also said a weeklong celebration of minority rights planned for later this month was cancelled.
Many local residents said they were in shock over the violence.
“We really regret these killings. I can assure that no one from this city could ever think of killing non-Muslims,” said Mohammad Naseer, a grocer who has lived in Gojra for 47 years and insisted the attackers must have been outsiders.
Hameed said his daughter, Aashi, was being treated for burns in the hospital.
In the courtyard of their gutted home lay two wooden-made bird cages.
The parrots were gone.
Dogar reported from Gojra, and Shahzad from Islamabad. Associated Press writer Ashraf Khan also contributed to this report from Karachi.