Angry Sikhs in Afghan funeral demonstration

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KABUL, Sep 17 (Reuters) Around 100 angry Afghan Sikhs carried a coffin to the United Nations headquarters in Kabul today, accusing Muslims of stopping them cremating the dead man.

Shouting slogans and punching their fists into the air the turbanned men broke through a hastily assembled police barriers until they reached the gates of the UN mission.

The protesters said Muslims had beaten them as they tried to bury community elder Lachman Singh.

''Aren't we human? Isn't God created for us as well? If God is only for Muslims, go ahead and kill us all or hand us over to the UN,'' Autaar Singh, parliament's Sikh representative, told Reuters.

''We want our rights and freedom,'' he said. ''We weren't even stopped performing our religious ceremonies by the Taliban.'' Numbering just a few hundred in Kabul and a few dozen elsewhere, Afghanistan's dwindling Sikh community complains of widespread discrimination from the overwhelming Muslim majority.

The head of criminal investigations at Kabul police, Ali Shah Paktiawal, came to calm the demonstrators and after brief talks with Sikh representatives inside the UN compound, agreed to escort the protesters to the site of the funeral.

FUNERAL PYRE Most Sikhs, along with the country's handful of Hindus, came with the British from India in the 19th century. But after more than 30 years of war in Afghanistan, most have fled.

In 2001, the Taliban ordered Sikhs, Hindus and other religious minorities to wear yellow patches, ostensibly so they would not be arrested by the religious police for breaking Taliban laws on the length of beards and other issues.

The Sikhs said they had owned land in the Qalacha area of Kabul, in the shadows of the ancient Bala Hisar fortress, for more than 120 years, but waves of returning Afghan refugees had built on the land and were now stopping them performing religious rites.

Muslims regard the cremation of the dead as a sacrilege.

''We have owned this land for more than 120 years to perform our sacrements, but it is the first time we were stopped and beaten by the people,'' said Autaar Singh.

''Even the Taliban did not oppress us as we are oppressed by the people and government right now.'' Having placed the coffin in the back of an estate car and squeezed into two buses, the Sikh protesters arrived at their temple escorted by several dozen armed police.

A small crowd of Muslim men looked on warily as the Sikhs carried the coffin, draped in a silver cloth, inside the temple compound where they built a funeral pyre.

Prayers were chanted as the body of the dead man was placed in the centre and covered with more wood and set alight.

Bemused Afghan police took pictures with their mobile phones.

Sikh leaders thanked the police.

''We are grateful to the authorities who helped us burn our dead on our land,'' Autaar Singh said.

REUTERS SKB RK1734

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