On anniversary of anti-Christian attacks, thousands march in Pakistan


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Faisalabad, Pakistan, Aug 3, 2010 / 02:56 am (CNA).- Over 2,000 people took part in a march in Pakistan to mark the first anniversary of some of the country's worst anti-Christian violence. A leading police official admitted to marchers that security forces had failed to protect Christians, while some prominent Muslim leaders said they deplored the violence.

In August 2009 a mob of several thousand Muslims looted and burned a Christian neighborhood in Gojra city in Punjab province. Eight people died in the violence.

Some of the most prominent local Muslims addressed the marchers, describing the perpetrators as unworthy of being called Muslims. They denounced the crimes as being against the precepts of the Koran.

Bishop of Faisalabad Joseph Coutts presided at the memorial Mass on Sunday at Gojra's Sacred Heart Catholic Church, ACN News reports. The bishop lit candles for each of those who died in the violence.

Victims included seven-year-old Musa Almas, his ten-year-old sister Umia, and five other members of their family.

The 2009 mob attacks reportedly took place in reaction to a rumor that the Koran was desecrated in a nearby village. The desecration was alleged to have taken place when children cut up pages from an old school book to use as wedding confetti. The school book supposedly contained verses from the Koran.

Bishop Coutts told ACN of his "huge relief" that the memorial events had gone peacefully despite recent violence. Two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy were shot and killed outside a Faisalabad courthouse after being cleared of the charges.

The prelate said that after the memorial Mass the police district's coordinating officer Amaan Ullah said the police response to the crisis had been "a failure."

"The police had received sufficient reports to indicate that there was something happening in Gojra that could lead to serious violence," the bishop commented.

While a judicial inquiry has already found fault with the police handling of the Gojra violence, Sunday was the first time a police official made such a public admission. Some have argued that the police should have imposed a legal order in Gojra to forbid gatherings of people within a defined area in order to eliminate the risk of mob violence.

Bishop Coutts also discussed how several very senior Muslims had appeared before the crowds of marchers in Gojra to describe the attack as "un-Islamic."

One leader was "quite clear" that Islam does not teach that people should be attacked. According to the bishop, the Muslim cleric said, "People who carry out attacks of this kind are not to be considered Muslims ... and the same applies to those who attack places of worship."

The people in the march reacted to these remarks "very quietly."

"Normally after speeches it is the custom here to give some applause but it was different this time," commented Bishop Coutts, saying he praised the people for their calm response.

"Indeed everything went wonderfully well, beyond my expectations - a huge relief," he added.

Local MP Aamir Joel, who is Catholic, has promised to press for more government funds to compensate victims and to rebuild vital infrastructure that was damaged by the violence.

The charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has launched a campaign to help the Church in Pakistan. It has also spoken out against the country's blasphemy laws.