Christians hold open-air mass after Muslims torch churches


SANGLA HILL. (AFP) - Hundreds of Christians have worshipped in the open air after a Muslim mob in eastern Pakistan burnt down churches over allegations that a Christian had desecrated the Koran.

The crowd, including women wearing black armbands to protest Saturday`s attacks, also demanded protection for the minority community in the small town of Sangla Hill. "They held their Sunday mass and dispersed peacefully," police officer Mohammad Asghar told AFP. A police contingent cordoned off the area near a gutted church in Sangla Hill, 80 kilometres (50 miles) west of Lahore, capital of Punjab province. The crowd dispersed after Catholic Archbishop Lawrence Saldanaha advised them not to retaliate. "The situation is under complete control now," home secretary of the Punjab provincial government, Khusro Pervez, told AFP. "Police have arrested around 90 people for rioting and violence and vandalising Christian property," he said. Yousaf Masih, a Christian accused of desecrating the Muslim holy book, has been detained, he added. Witnesses said at least two churches were destroyed in the attack by more than 1,000 enraged Muslims. The mob then ransacked a Christian school, set its furniture on fire and attacked a hostel where a pastor lives. Residents said the attack was prompted by allegations from Muslims that Yousaf Masih had burnt copies of the Koran. Christian leaders said Masih`s rivals had made a false accusation after losing money to him at gambling. "A Muslim cobbler and a goldsmith lost money to the accused Yousaf Masih in gambling. They refused to pay the money and created this nuisance," Akram Gill, a minority Christian MP, told AFP. Pervez said charges of desecrating the Koran were being investigated. The crime under a blasphemy law is punishable by death. Human rights activists say the law is often misused to settle personal vendettas against the minority Christian community. Christians make up less than three percent of Pakistan`s mainly Muslim population of 150 million. Four leading Christian organisations at a meeting in Lahore Sunday demanded immediate repeal of the blasphemy law, a Christian community leader, Peter Jacob, said. "Blasphemy law has always acted as a lethal sword against the minority communities. Its repeal is our longstanding demand," Jacob told AFP. The meeting decided to stage a countrywide "protest and prayer day" on Thursday when all Christian missionary schools will be closed and peace walks will be staged in the country, he added. The meeting also decided that repair work at the churches would not start until some top government official had seen the destruction and assured that Pakistani Christians would be protected, he said. Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao condemned the incident and promised security of Christian worship places. "We condemn this incident. We have arrested a lot of people who indulged in it," he told AFP. Sherpao said that security of minority worship places across Pakistan had been intensified and extra police deployed to protect them.

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