Page last updated at 00:57 GMT, Wednesday, 12 August 2009 01:57 UK

Sectarian violence hits Pakistani town

By Aleem Maqbool
BBC News, Gojra, Pakistan

The Hameed family
The Hameed family has been left traumatised after the attack

On a street in the small Punjabi town of Gojra, house after house stands gutted and looted.

One home in particular is the focus of attention. The windows and doors are gone, what is left of the furniture lies gnarled inside, and some of the ceilings have collapsed. People are peering into a small bedroom at the back of the building.

It is from here that the charred bodies of six members of the Hameed family, from Pakistan's minority Christian community, were recovered. The youngest of the dead was four-year-old Mousa.

We found his father, Almass Hameed, 49, in a crowded hospital ward nearby.

'Shocked and crying'

"He was such a bright boy. His teachers complained that he was cheeky at times, but nobody could doubt how clever he was. But now he's gone," Mr Hameed said, breaking down.

Almass Hameed
It was like the most horrific movie. They destroyed our lives
Almass Hameed

He described how an angry Muslim mob came through the area, known here as the Christian Colony.

"I think there were thousands," he said. "My elderly father went out to see what was happening and they shot and killed him. We were all shocked and crying. Before we knew it, they were breaking into the house."

Mr Hameed explained how he and nine other members of the family hid in the bedroom as the house was over-run.

"We could hear them smashing everything and dividing our belongings amongst themselves," he said. "Then they started beating on the door saying they would teach us a lesson and burn us alive."

Soon after, a fire was raging through his house.

"We just couldn't breathe," he said. "I grabbed my eldest son and managed to get out of the room through the flames, my brother came out with one of my daughters, but the rest were stuck and we had no way of rescuing them."

As well as his father and Mousa, Mr Hameed lost his 11 year-old daughter, his wife, a brother, a sister-in-law and her mother.

"It was like the most horrific movie. They destroyed our lives."

'Fired shots'

Tensions had risen after allegations that Christians in the nearby village of Korrian had torn up and burnt pages of the Koran at a wedding a few days earlier.

Fire damage at the Hameed family house
Six members of the Hameed family perished in the inferno

"They started it," 19-year-old Omar Ali Raza said in Gojra's marketplace.

"We Muslims are the victims. We gathered to protest about what they did to the Koran in Korrian and just wanted to walk through their area, but they threw stones at us and fired shots."

"Of course it is bad that Christians died," he added. "But they provoked the Muslims here. I don't understand why everyone is on their side."

But an elderly Muslim man passing by interrupts. "The responsibility is with the one who actually burns the Koran, not all Christians," he said. "Here, we live together, and there were no problems before this."

As it happens, a local police chief, Ahmed Javaid, said he believed the claim that Christians desecrated the Koran was not true in the first place.

"Yes, pieces of paper had been cut up to look like money at a Christian wedding, but they were not pages of the Koran," he said.

"However, the rumour spread and the issue became politicised."

Pakistani Christians in Lahore rally in response to the attacks
Christians in Lahore responded to the attacks by holding a rally

Very soon after the allegations from Korrian surfaced, politicians from several parties held large rallies denouncing Christians in the area, calling for action. These were not just politicians from expressly right-wing Islamist parties.

PML-N leaders have visited Gojra in recent days, expressing solidarity with minority communities. But Christians here say they are sceptical.

They accuse the party and others of having previously taken advantage of anti-Christian feelings rather than helping to calm things down.

'Rare' violence

Senator Pervaiz Rashid, at the headquarters of the Nawaz party, told me it was very serious in its commitment to minority rights.

"We acknowledge there were problems in Gojra, and it is an embarrassment," he said. "However, it was an isolated incident and the local president, Qadeer Awan, has now had his party membership suspended."

"I do not believe that there are any other local politicians in our party involved in such activities."

Violence of this scale against Pakistan's estimated three million strong Christian community may be rare (this is the worst such incident in seven years), but complaints of discrimination are certainly commonplace.

The Hameed family in hospital
The family is now recovering from its terrifying ordeal

The government says it has opened an inquiry into what happened in Gojra, but Asma Jahangir, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, is not expecting the type of change she thinks is needed.

"For too long the Pakistani state has protected people with extremist views," she said.

"It is not just political parties. There are radicalised individuals, and supporters of militant groups within the judiciary, the education system, the bureaucracy and police as well."

This was not the vision of Pakistan held by its founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

"Minorities, to whichever community they may belong, will be safeguarded. Their religion or faith or beliefs will be secure," he said just weeks before Pakistan's creation in 1947.

"They will be, in all respects, the citizens of Pakistan without any distinction of caste or creed."

But as Pakistan prepares to mark its independence day, many of its citizens do not see any cause for celebration.

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