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Christian Pakistanis, Called "America's Dogs," Have Long History Of Persecution In Punjab

After eight people were burnt alive, over 50 houses destroyed and a church desecrated in the village of Gojra, Pakistani Christians have expressed their rage and frustration. There have been nationwide protests, and Christian schools across Pakistan were closed for three days from the 3rd of August.

"We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern," Bishop Sadiq Daniel said. "We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice."

Interestingly enough, these schools are not restricted to the Christian community. A large portion of this country's elite attends these schools that were established in the 19th century. Convents such as St Patrick's High School and St Joseph's Convent, run by the Catholic Church, are considered to be prestigious educational institutes.

The province of Punjab has long been at the heart of assaults on Pakistani Christians. The Christians of Pakistan are the largest religious minority in the country. In 2008, they were estimated to make up about 1 percent of the population, but Christian leaders argue the number is closer to 5 percent. More than 90 percent of the country's Christians live in Punjab, which makes them the largest religious minority in the province.

The Daily Times points out that:

'Charges of blasphemy and desecration of the Quran are "used" against them, but the latter is used against them collectively, followed by organized dispossession and destruction of property.'

(As was the case in Gojra.)

Many argue that Punjabi landowners, some of the most influential and affluent people in Pakistan, who constitute a large part of the political elite, use the blasphemy law to usurp properties owned by Christians. The law states that anyone insulting the Quran or Prophet Mohammad is subject to life imprisonment or death. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has repeatedly demanded the repeal of the law on the grounds that it can be used for sectarian witch-hunts.

The British brought in the blasphemy law during the colonial rule, but amendments introduced by the military ruler, General Zia-ul-Haq, have made it an instrument of religious discrimination and persecution.

Just a couple of months ago, it was reported that the Christians of Kasur, a village also situated in Punjab, were similarly threatened by the Muslims of the area. Over a hundred families had to flee into fields in the middle of the night to escape a mob ready to burn down their homes. The allegation here too was blasphemy.

Roman Catholic Archbishop of Karachi Evarist Pinto held a press conference in Karachi where he said that 'the recurrence of such violent acts, coupled with the indifference of the security forces, was spreading feelings of insecurity amongst members of minority communities.'

Blogger Dr Awab Alvi, professional dentist and well-respected member of the Pakistan Twitter scene, tweeted an email sent out by Bishop Ijaz Inayat of Karachi's Holy Trinity Cathedral. In his email, the bishop asks 'why the police and the Agencies allow the situation to simmer in spite of a [very large] history of such incidents in Pakistan.'

Though thought to be defunct, extremist organizations like the Sipah-e-Sahaba, are still capable of instigating locals as we witnessed in Gojra. Witness accounts tell us that the masked men who arrived from the neighboring district of Jhang managed to gather a mob of hundreds. The HRCP claims that announcements were made from mosques to 'make mincemeat of the Christians.' This speaks of the street power of such extremist organizations and the mindset of the people. Nicholas D. Kristof has written in the New York Times about the 'creeping Talibanization' and how in his more recent travels to Punjab, he found it more troubled than in the past.

According to the Christian Science Monitor, Joseph Francis of the Christian National Party sees a link between violence against Christians and the US-led war in Afghanistan. The Muslim mob in Gojra had been incited with hate-speech that called Christians "America's dogs." He says, "Since 9/11, we've felt a lot more at risk. Whenever we have large gatherings or processions, we have to ask for police protection."

This is not the first time an attack on Pakistan's Christians has been linked to the US-led war on terror. In October 2001, over a dozen were killed at a Protestant church in Bahawalpur, once again a Punjabi town. Worshipers said that as the gunmen opened fire they declared Pakistan would become a graveyard of Christians to avenge deaths in Afghanistan. The timing of the attack made the connection all the more believable. Already vulnerable, Christian leaders had asked for protection before the United States launched its military offensive against Afghanistan.

Even though, Hindus, another minority group, are viewed as being synonymous with the projected archenemy, India, it is the Christians who are attacked again and again.

The Chief Minister of Punjab has assured that protection as well as compensation will be served to the victims of the Gojra tragedy while the perpetrators of the crime will be brought to justice, but Pakistani Christians are not satisfied. They are looking for a more permanent solution to their insecurity. Joseph Francis has said that a black day of mourning is to be observed on August 11, marked in Pakistani calendars as Minority Day.

Analyst and columnist, Cyril Almeida, claims that the government may be reluctant to take on extremist organizations like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Sipah-e-Sahaba despite the latter's links with al-Qaeda. "While the army is already tackling the Taliban, that is their first priority. They probably don't want to start another confrontation with organizations that are more sectarian in nature." He said this in the context of India's demands of Pakistan to take on Hafiz Saeed and his banned Lashkar-e-Taiba, which they believe to be behind last year's Mumbai attacks.

This is part of HuffPost's Spotlight On Pakistan. Eyes & Ears and HuffPost World are building a network of people living in Pakistan who can help us understand what is happening there. These individuals will send us reports -- either snippets of information or full-length stories -- about how the political crisis affects life in Pakistan. This is an opportunity to have a continued conversation with Americans about what's happening in your country. If you would like to participate, please sign up here.

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