Low-key Easter preparations for Pakistan's fearful Christians

GOJRA, Pakistan Fri Apr 22, 2011 4:08pm BST

Pakistani Christians carry a cross through the streets of Quetta while observing Good Friday April 22, 2011. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Pakistani Christians carry a cross through the streets of Quetta while observing Good Friday April 22, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Naseer Ahmed

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GOJRA, Pakistan (Reuters) - Christians in the small Pakistani town of Gojra are making low-key preparations for Easter this year.

Residents of the neighbourhood, known as Christian Colony, in the town in Punjab province, are haunted by memories of a 2009 attack by a Muslim mob in which seven members of a family were killed and dozens of houses torched.

A few days before Easter, which Christians believe marks the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his crucifixion, bare-foot children played cricket in the town's dusty alleys while some men chatted on a bench under a tree.

"If we celebrate it with a fanfare, we fear somebody might get annoyed and attack us," said Khalid Anjum, 45, the owner of a small snooker hall.

The only sign of the approach of Easter was a few young men rehearsing hymns in St. Mary's Catholic Church.

"Fear is there but we cannot give up our religion," said Wilson Rafiq, the leader of the group of singers, who plays a traditional drum set known as a tabla.

Pakistan was founded in 1947 as a home for the Muslims of South Asia at the end of British colonial rule, with the country's founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, promising that all communities would be able to worship freely.

But today, Jinnah's pledge of religious tolerance often seems hollow as religious violence increases.

Religious minorities account for about 4 percent of Pakistan's 170 million people, with about three quarters of members of religious minorities Christian.

The independent Human Rights Commission said at least 100 people from minority communities were killed in 2010. The bloodiest attack was on Ahmadis, a sect that mainstream Muslims consider heretical, when 86 people were killed.

This year, the liberal Muslim governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were killed in separate shootings for speaking out against a blasphemy law aimed at defending Islam.

Under the law, anyone who speaks ill of Islam and the Prophet Mohammad commits a crime and faces the death penalty but human rights activists say the law's vague wording has led to its misuse, often against members of minority religions.

Compounding a climate of fear, Islamist militants, angered by Pakistan's alliance with the United States since 2001, have carried periodic attacks on minorities as part of a campaign to destabilise the state.

"FEAR IN THEIR HEARTS"

In Gojra's Christian Colony, the level of fear has increased since the sentencing Monday of a Muslim to death for shooting dead two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy.

Rather then welcoming what some people might see as justice, Christians fear that if the sentence is carried out, it will only mean more trouble for them.

"Things will only get worse. If one is punished, someone else will stand up to take revenge for him," said housewife Shahida Kashif.

"My kids still get scared whenever there's a small disturbance. They says 'mother, they've come. They'll set fire to our houses again'. They still have fear in their hearts," she said, referring to memories of the 2009 riot.

A mob of about 1,000 Muslims, incensed by rumours that a Christian had desecrated the Koran, rampaged through the neighborhood, firing guns and throwing petrol bombs.

Hameed Pannum Khan was shot dead and six members of his family, including two women and two children, were burnt to death when their hut was torched.

Authorities blamed militants linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban for the violence.

Abdul Khaliq Kashmiri, a Muslim prayer leader, was locked up for 15 months on charges of inciting the attack.

He was recently released after Christians, fearing his continued detention would only make things worse for them, told authorities they had no proof of his involvement.

Kashmiri denied any part in it and appealed for tolerance.

"Everybody should follow their own religion and should stop slinging mud at others," he said.

Christian Allah Rakha, a relative of the family killed in 2009 said the hatred had to stop for the sake of future generations.

"We all should get rid of this evil," said Rakha, 70, sitting on a threadbare sofa in the drawing room of his single story home.

"If we talk of revenge we'll never have peace."

(Edited by Chris Allbritton and Robert Birsel)

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