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Pakistani Christians fear more extremist attacks

Almas Hameed lost seven relatives when an angry mob burnt down his home in a rampage against Pakistan's minority Christian community and lives in fear that more violence is looming.

world Updated: Oct 08, 2009 08:03 IST

Almas Hameed lost seven relatives when an angry mob burnt down his home in a rampage against Pakistan's minority Christian community and lives in fear that more violence is looming.

Standing in the wreckage of his home in Gojra in Pakistan's political heartland of Punjab nearly two months after bloody riots left more than 40 houses torched, he recalls the moment his family died.

"We were hiding in our bedroom after our father was killed by gunfire. But they did not leave us -- they threw chemicals to burn the whole family," he told AFP.

"I lost my wife, two children, father, brother, sister-in-law and her mother in the attack," he said showing photos of his loved ones.

"We are not safe here, we are hiding from extremists who want to eliminate us from this town... We are still receiving calls from the extremists, they frequently give us death threats," said Hameed.

Gojra, 50 kilometres (30 miles) from industrial hub Faisalabad, was until recently famous only for producing a number of hockey stars, with no history of tensions between the 495,000 Muslims and 35,000 Christians.

But on August 1, a mob set upon Christian homes and churches, after rumours spread that pages of the Koran had been ripped up at a Christian wedding.

The exact trigger of the deadly rampage remains unclear, but a report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and witnesses said that local mosques were spreading rumours.

"There is a group of extremists promoting a violent version of Islam which is dangerous for the country," said the Bishop of Faisalabad Joseph Coutts.

Tensions and fears escalated on September 11 when about 100 people, mostly youths, attacked a Catholic church in Sambrial district near the Indian border after accusing a Christian man, Fanish Masih, of desecrating the Koran.

Masih was arrested under the country's controversial blasphemy law but died in Sialkot jail. Police said he committed suicide but the community blames police torture for the death.

Christians, who make up less than three percent of Pakistan's 167 million population and are generally impoverished and marginalised, claim the blasphemy laws are used as an excuse to victimise them.

The law was introduced by former military ruler Zia ul-Haq, who passed tough Islamic legislation and whose rule from 1977-1988 was seen as critical in the development of extremist Islam in parts of Pakistan.

The blasphemy law carries the death penalty, although no one has yet been executed for the crime. Human rights activists want the legislation repealed, saying it is exploited and encourages extremism.

The government is at pains to play down the tensions amid heightened fears of widening unrest in a country already troubled by an insurgency by religious hardliners, and is trying to reassure the Christian community.

Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of Punjab province and brother of opposition leader Nawaz Sharif, ordered reconstruction of the Christian homes and dozens of Muslim labourers are engaged in rebuilding the houses.

Kamran Michael, provincial minister for minorities affairs, said nearly 2.5 million dollars had been allocated for the rebuilding.

"We will make sure that peace returns to the area," said Michael, himself a Christian.

Despite government assurances, Hameed and his fellow Christians remain fearful, and doubt the government can guarantee their safety.

"Our Muslim friends are also helpless, they express their sympathies by telephone but they are conscious that their contacts with us will create problems and extremists would declare them non-Muslims," Hameed said.

Father Shabir, a priest in Gojra, said he just wanted the community to be able to live without fear that the blasphemy laws could be used against them.

"The government is trying hard to normalise the situation, but we are not safe until they take concrete steps to protect us," he said.

Talat Masood, a well-known analyst, said tensions between the communities had risen since the US-led "war on terror", but believes the Gojra riots did not symbolise a deep-rooted hatred between Muslims and Christians.

"It is more dictated by economic considerations like property disputes or the forcible sale and purchase of land," he said, adding that the blasphemy laws were often used to exploit Christians for financial gain.