Six Christians burnt alive in Pakistan violence

ISLAMABAD Sat Aug 1, 2009 10:23am EDT

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ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Six Christians, including four women, were burned alive in clashes with majority Muslims in a town in central Pakistan on Saturday, officials said.

Tension has been running high between the two communities in Gojra town in central Punjab province over allegations that Christians had desecrated a Koran.

Clashes erupted early on Saturday, with an exchange of fire from the members of the two communities.

Television footage showed burning houses and streets strewn with blackened furniture and people firing at each other from their rooftops.

Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, said a mob "misled by religious extremists," attacked a Christian neighborhood and torched dozens of houses.

"We have received six bodies of people who died of burn injuries. They included four women, one man and one child," Abdul Hamid, a Health Ministry official in the town told Reuters by telephone.

Rana Sanaullah, provincial minister for law, who is also responsible for security matters of Punjab, condemned the attack and said an inquiry had been ordered.

However, he said, a preliminary investigation showed there was no desecration of the Koran. "It was just a rumor which was exploited by anti-state elements to create chaos," he said.

"I request both Muslim and Christian communities to show restraint," Sanaullah said, adding the government would take strict action against rioters and also police who failed to stop the violence.

Pakistan is a predominantly Muslim nation and religious minorities, including Christians, account for roughly 4 percent of the 170 million population.

Muslims and minorities largely live in harmony but there have been periodic attacks on Christian targets in Pakistan since it became a U.S. ally following the September 11 attacks on the United States.

(Reporting by Zeeshan Haider; Editing by Alison Williams)

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