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Rampage stuns Pakistani Christians, who say police failed to stop carnage

GOJRA, Pakistan — Almas Hameed grabbed his 7-year-old daughter and stumbled out of their smoke-filled home as she pleaded in vain to bring her pet parrots. His wife, father and two other children did not survive.

Outside, hundreds of enraged Muslims called the victims "dogs" as they fired guns and burned house after house in the Christian neighborhood of this eastern Pakistani city. The weekend rampage left eight Christians dead. All but one were relatives of Hameed.

"We always live in fear," said Hameed, 50. "I wonder if I will see a time in this country when I can live like an equal citizen."

The attack, which Pakistani officials said was incited by a radical Islamist group, followed rumors that some Christians had desecrated a Quran — an act regarded as sacrilege by Muslims. The violence drew condemnation Monday from the prime minister and the pope, a chilling reminder of how religious extremism has left minority religious groups in this country increasingly vulnerable.

On Monday, paramilitary troops patrolled near the dozens of targeted houses, with their blackened walls, charred furniture and twisted ceiling fans. Six people died in the fires, two by gunshots.

Authorities urged calm and promised that local police would be investigated for their inability to stop the violence, which spiraled even after an initial probe debunked the rumor that a Quran had been defiled.

"It was like hell. Nobody was coming to help us," said Atique Masih, a 23-year-old Christian who was shot in his right leg.

Christian schools across the country closed for three days starting Monday.

"We are closing the schools to show our anger and concern," Bishop Sadiq Daniel told The Associated Press, emphasizing the move was a peaceful tactic. "We want the government to bring all perpetrators of the crime to justice."

In a telegram, Pope Benedict XVI 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."

Christians — Protestants and Catholics among them — make up less than 5 percent of Muslim-majority Pakistan's 175 million people, according to the CIA World Factbook. They generally live in peace with their Muslim neighbors.

Extremists, however, have made Christians and other minority religious groups a target.