Pakistani Christians have closed their schools and colleges across the country for three days starting Monday to mourn and protest the killings of eight of their religious brethren, leaders of the minority community said.
Hundreds of Muslims, apparently spurred by a banned Islamist group, stormed a Christian neighborhood in the eastern city of Gojra on Saturday, burning dozens of houses after reports surfaced that some Christians had desecrated a Quran.
Six Christians died in flames, while two were killed by gunshots. Christian leaders and Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said an initial probe had debunked the Quran defilement rumor.
"We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern," Bishop Sadiq Daniel told The Associated Press, noting the move was a peaceful tactic. "We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice."
In a telegram Monday, the pope said he was "deeply grieved" to hear of the "senseless attack."
Benedict sent his condolences to families of the victims and called on the Christians "not to be deterred in their efforts to help build a society which, with a profound sense of trust in religious and human values, is marked by mutual respect among all its members."
In a statement, Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani condemned the incident in the "strongest words."
Paramilitary troops and other security forces were patrolling the city Monday. Farhatullah Babar, a spokesman for Pakistan's president, said a judicial panel will probe the incident.
Christians and Muslims usually live together peacefully in Pakistan, which is overwhelmingly Muslim.
However, Christians and other minority religious groups are vulnerable to discriminatory laws, including an edict against blasphemy that carries death penalty for derogatory remarks or any other action against Islam, the Quran or the Prophet Muhammad.
Anyone can make an accusation under the law, and it is often used to settle personal scores and rivalries.
The clashes between the Muslims and Christians began Thursday after reports that a copy of the Quran had been defiled. Hundreds of Muslim protesters set fire to several Christians' houses in the first two days, but the violence reached its peak Saturday.
Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said the attackers belonged to a banned Sunni Muslim extremist group, Sipah-e-Sahaba.
'Not the work of Muslims'
Officials have tried to calm the situation.
"This is not the work of Muslims. A group of extremists have exploited the situation," Sanaullah told a group of Christians after the funeral prayers for the deceased Sunday night. "I also want to appeal to both the communities to remain calm. Please do not become a tool in the hands of some miscreants."
Gojra is in Pakistan's Faisalabad region, which is dotted with hard-line Islamist schools.
Sipah-e-Sahaba also has an offshoot group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, that is linked to the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Jhangvi is believed involved in the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and two failed assassination attempts against former President Pervez Musharraf, as well as scores of other terrorist strikes.