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On December 25th, Christians gathered to commemorate the birth of Jesus Christ and contemplate his message of love. As President George W. Bush said in a proclamation, “The true spirit of Christmas reflects a dedication to helping those in need, to giving hope to those in despair, and to spreading peace and understanding throughout the earth.”

But Christmas had a very different meaning for terrorists in Pakistan. For them, it was a day for killing. Two attackers threw grenades into a United Presbyterian church in Chianwala [CHEE-ah-WAH-lee], northwest of Lahore [lah-HORE]. Three young girls were killed and about a dozen other worshipers were wounded.

Pakistani police have arrested several people in connection with the terrorist attack. They include a Muslim cleric who had reportedly preached a sermon only days before that called for Christians to be killed. According to police, the cleric, known as Afzar [ahf-zahr], told people at his mosque in nearby Daska [dahs-kah] that “it is the duty of every good Muslim to kill Christians.”

The investigation by Pakistani police is in its early stages, and it is not yet known what evidence -- if any -- may be found to link Afzar to the attack on the Christian church. But there can be no doubt that preaching religious hatred can lead to violence. Indeed, such words are a clear incitement to violence -- and not a legitimate exercise of free speech.

The Christmas killings were not the only terrorist attacks on Christians in Pakistan during the past year. Last March, a grenade attack on a church in Islamabad, the capital, killed five people, including a U.S. embassy employee and her teenage daughter. In August, terrorists killed six people at a Christian school in Murree [m’r-ree], east of Islamabad. Later the same month, terrorists threw grenades at worshipers in a church in Taxila [tahk-sil-ah], west of Islamabad. Four people were killed.

Pakistani officials have condemned these acts of terrorism. In a statement, Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali [meer zah-fahr-ul-LAH khahn jah-mah-lee] called the Christmas killings “dastardly” and designed to “foment religious and sectarian strife” in Pakistan. The same could be said of the hateful words that incite such attacks -- in Pakistan and elsewhere.

As President Bush said in November at a White House Iftaar dinner at the beginning of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, “No one should be treated unkindly because of. . .the content of their creed. . . . America grieves with all the victims of religious bigotry. And America opposes all who commit evil in God’s name.”