Pakistan Christians shut schools to mourn killings

Islamabad, Pakistan — Pakistani Christians were closing their schools across the country for three days starting Monday to protest the killings of eight members of their community by Muslims, violence that drew condemnation from Pope Benedict XVI.

Hundreds of Muslims, allegedly spurred on by a radical Islamist group, stormed a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Gojra on Saturday, burning dozens of houses after reports surfaced that some Christians had desecrated a Quran.

Six Christians died in the flames, while two were killed by gunshots, as police did little to stop the attackers.

Christian leaders and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said an initial probe had debunked the Quran defilement rumor.

"We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern," Bishop Sadiq Daniel told The Associated Press, noting the move was a peaceful tactic. "We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice."

In a telegram Monday, the pope 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."

Paramilitary troops and other security forces were patrolling the city Monday. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Pakistan's president, said a judicial panel will probe the incident. It was not immediately clear exactly how many schools would be shuttered.

Christians make up less than 5 percent of Pakistan's 175 million people, and they generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbors.

Extremists, however, have made Christians and other minority religious groups a target. Earlier this summer in the Kasur area a group of Muslims set fire to dozens of Christian homes, according to local news accounts.

Shiite Muslims, also a minority when compared to the Sunni sect of Islam, are also often targeted. And the anti-minority phenomenon seems to be getting worse as the Taliban militancy has gained strength in Pakistan.

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 embroiled in 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 also 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 Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.

Anyone can make an accusation under the law, and it is often used to settle personal scores and rivalries.

The latest attacks on Christians began Thursday following reports that a copy of the Quran had been defiled. Hundreds of Muslim protesters set fire to several Christians' houses in the first two days, but the violence reached its peak Saturday.

Officials have blamed the attacks on the banned Sunni Muslim extremist group Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan.

"This is not the work of Muslims. A group of extremists have exploited the situation," Sanaullah told a group of Christians after the funeral prayers for the deceased Sunday night. "I also want to appeal to both the communities to remain calm. Please do not become a tool in the hands of some miscreants."

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 canceled.

Gojra is in Pakistan's Faisalabad region, which is dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.

Also Monday, Pakistan's Supreme Court adjourned a hearing on whether to detain a man suspected to have played a role in last year's attacks in the Indian city of Mumbai. The court did not set a date for another hearing, leaving Hafiz Saeed free.

Saeed helped set up Lashkar-e-Taiba, the banned extremist group India says plotted the attacks that killed 166 people. He was put under house arrest for a few months this year, but freed in June after a court decided there was not enough evidence against him.

The government appealed that ruling while pressing India for more evidence. Monday's adjournment came because the provincial government chief prosecutor has resigned and no one was there in his place, said Shah Khawar, a government lawyer.