Pakistani Christians shutter schools over killings

Mon Aug 3, 2009 8:31am EDT

(Adds message from Pope Benedict, paragraphs 1,9,10)

By Augustine Anthony

ISLAMABAD, Aug 3 (Reuters) - Pakistani missionary schools closed on Monday for three days to mourn the deaths of seven Christians burnt alive in clashes with majority Muslims, and Pope Benedict said he was "deeply grieved" by the killings.

Four women and a child were among those killed in the violence that broke out in Gojra in Punjab province on Saturday, after Muslims torched Christians' homes following unsubstantiated allegations some of them had desecrated the Koran.

Some 40 homes were burned down in total. [ID:nISL424142]

"Christian schools will remain closed for three days from today to mourn the death of innocent people in Gojra," said Bishop Sadiq Daniel, head of the Church of Pakistan diocese in Karachi and southwestern Baluchistan province.

"There is no proof of blasphemy, but if someone has done that he, and not the entire community, should be punished."

Desecration of the Koran is punishable by death in Pakistan.

While Christian schools and colleges in Punjab are largely closed for summer vacation, they were set to reopen in Pakistan's biggest city of Karachi on Monday.

Christians staged small protests in several cities and towns on Monday, calling on authorities to punish the perpetrators of violence against their community.

Pope Benedict sent his condolences to Pakistani Christians and urged them to keep trying to build a society "marked by mutual respect" among different religions.

"The Holy Father was deeply grieved to learn of the senseless attack on the Christian community of Gojra city which resulted in the tragic killing of innocent men, women and children," the Vatican said in a telegram sent to a Catholic bishop in Pakistan.

"BASELESS" ALLEGATIONS

Shahbaz Bhatti, minister for minorities, said authorities were looking into reports that "masked men armed with explosives" were at the forefront of the violence.

"Allegations of desecration of the Holy Koran, which were used as an excuse by banned (Islamist) groups to foment such a big scale of violence, were baseless and without grounds," he told a news conference on Monday.

Police said earlier they had registered a complaint against some government officials and more than 800 unidentified men over the incident.

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

Muslims and minorities generally live in harmony but Islamist militants, angered over Pakistan's alliance with the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, have carried out periodic attacks on Christian targets on suspicion that they sympathise with the United States.

Pakistani newspapers on Monday ran an appeal from leading Muslim clerics calling for calm and restraint. The clerics called for punishment if the desecration did take place, but urged the Muslim community not to take the law into their own hands.

"Every Muslim of Pakistan should provide complete protection to innocent non-Muslim fellow citizens and play his religious and national role to curb every kind of mischief-making," the appeal read. (Additional reporting by Stephen Brown in Vatican City and Zeeshan Haider in Islamabad; Editing by Jason Subler)





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