Christians in Pakistan are afraid
The burning down of churches and homes by a Muslim mob over blasphemy allegations has left the minority of Christians frightened.
Pakistan’s Jaranwala – In a Christian colony in northern Pakistan, Pastor Javed Bhatti delivered his sermon as Rina Javed Bhatti sat among a group of 20–25 worshipers, many of whom were sobbing hysterically.
The pastor said on Sunday as some of the audience, mostly women, broke into chants of “Hallelujah” with tears and sweat rolling down their faces in the hot and muggy summer weather, “We thank God almighty for protecting us, for taking care of us, and it is He who will help us get back on our feet.”
The first service was held on Sunday after a Muslim mob attacked Christian homes and places of worship on August 16 in Jaranwala city, Punjab province, on the grounds of blasphemy.
The arson attack on Thursday was evident in the rows of homes lining the winding roadway, which had burnt walls, scorched motorcycles, broken furniture, and blackened household objects all over them. On the next block, the Catholic Church of Saint John was in ruins.
The majority of the locals, including 31-year-old Rina and her family, escaped before the mob went on the rampage, torching homes and churches and frequently snatching goods from occupants.
“Brick by brick, we built our house, but when we got home, all that was left was ashes. She informed Al Jazeera that the thugs torched and pillaged the homes of defenseless individuals.
Locals and government representatives told Al Jazeera that the unrest started after shredded Quranic sheets and several pages with words demeaning Islam written on them were discovered about 100 meters from Rina’s house. On one of the papers, the author of this claimed blasphemous act was purportedly identified by his name, photograph, and phone number.
“Unverified blasphemy claims”
On August 16, at 6 a.m., Pastor Javed recalls hearing a disturbance in the street. He spotted people waiting outside his neighbor’s house to confront the suspect, who has denied desecrating the Quran, as soon as he stepped outside.
According to the 41-year-old pastor, he made an effort to reason with the local Muslims by asking them why someone would divulge their identify after committing such a “heinous crime.”
He told Al Jazeera, sitting on a charpoy (cot) outside his burned-out home, “We have a neighborhood peace committee and the Muslims stated they will start a dialogue including a cleric of a nearby mosque as well. However, the story had already started spreading on social media like wildfire.
The rage, he claims, was stoked by a local mosque’s call to protest and assault.
In the past, those convicted of insulting Islam have been executed or subjected to severe penalties, including the death penalty.
A Sri Lankan factory manager was lynched in 2021 in Sialkot city, some 200 kilometers north of Jaranwala, on blasphemy-related charges. The assertion was eventually found to be untrue.
In another incident, a mob in the eastern city of Lahore torched more than 100 Christian homes in 2013 over blasphemy accusations. A Christian man who was charged with committing the crime was cleared by a jury in 2020.
Rights organizations warn that such violence is frequently made worse by unproven allegations, which are typically the result of personal animosity.
The allegations, according to Pastor Javed, served as his signal to begin advising local Christian community leaders to leave their houses immediately for safer locations. He had to flee Jaranwala, which is located around 115 kilometers (71 miles) northwest of Lahore, the capital of the Punjab province, along with more than 100 families who were residents of the Christian colony.
Relationships between Christians and Muslims deteriorated
As mobs stormed their homes, residents of the hamlet sought refuge in industries, open fields, and other surrounding settlements.
The pastor claims that in the more than 50 years that his family has lived in this neighborhood, they have never experienced any form of religious prejudice, much less been falsely accused of blasphemy.
But I’m mindful of the past. I am aware of the damage that such accusations can do.
Two days later, on the day of her intended wedding, Sahar Maiskeem, who had fled with eight members of her family, arrived home to see that her home had been completely demolished.
“I had saved up my own dowry using money I had made over the course of three years from sewing clothing. Either someone stole or set fire to all we owned. Not even my engagement ring is left,” she admitted to Al Jazeera.
The Muslim resident of the same neighborhood, Faisal Afzal, claimed that during his lifetime, he had never heard of any strife or disagreement with his Christian neighbors.
“Those responsible for this weren’t from around here. They do not comprehend the long-term harm we must manage, the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera.
According to Afzal, the conflict weakened mutual confidence between the two communities.
Police allegedly took too long to act
A conference between Christian and Muslim leaders was arranged on August 16 at around 8am, according to Muhammed Riaz, a local police official, after authorities were made aware of the developing situation.
Police efforts to defuse the situation were supported by the leaders of both groups, Riaz claimed. But he stated that the police were overpowered by a crowd of more than 500 Muslims who had congregated close to the Christian settlement.
“The majority of the audience was made up of young men and teenagers brandishing sticks and batons. The police official stated that at 9 or 10 am, when emotions were strong, the mob stormed Christian churches and residences.
According to the police, the throng included locals, inhabitants of adjacent villages, and some members of religious organizations.
The Salvation Army Church, a red building constructed prior to the nation’s independence in 1947, could be seen in videos of the violence near the Christian community as scores of young men surrounded it.
The men were chanting phrases related to the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party. In numerous films, they can be seen scaling the church’s roof, demolishing the cross, and setting the structure on fire.
Another video depicts hundreds of men storming the main street of the Christian settlement, assaulting and setting on fire St. John’s Catholic Church and other homes while police looked on.
One of the 21 wrecked churches that Al Jazeera saw also had a party flag of the TLP lying next to the altar. However, the party has denied any role in the attacks and asserted that it is leading attempts to defuse tensions.
more than a hundred arrests
Widespread condemnation of the anti-Christian atrocities in Pakistan led the interim administration to promise rapid punishment against the offenders.
More than 150 people have been detained by authorities so far in connection with the vandalism. Two brothers, Rocky and Raja, who are accused of blasphemy, were also detained by the police. According to reports, Raja’s name was written on the pages of the damaged Quran.
Along with committing to reconstruct all of the destroyed churches, the province administration also provided compensation for individuals who lost their homes in the amount of two million rupees ($24,000).
Approximately 100 residences and at least 22 churches within an eight-kilometer radius were either entirely or partially destroyed, resulting in damages totaling close to 70 million rupees ($233,000).
The police claim that they made every effort to control the situation and avert fatalities.
“I recognize the significant loss of property, but at least it can still be replaced or fixed. Usman Akram Gondal, a senior police official, told Al Jazeera that they wanted to make sure no one’s life was in risk.
However, activists and academics have charged that the government is moving too slowly to quell rumors that are circulating on social media.
Facebook and Twitter were mostly used to “fuel the violence” when the blasphemy claims surfaced, according to Bytes for All, an Islamabad-based research organization. They later spread through TikTok and YouTube.
According to Shahzad Ahmad, country director for Bytes for All, “our monitoring shows that posts about the incident reached roughly a million people on Twitter and Facebook.”
Back in the Christian community, Jan Masih said he is unsure of his ability to ever restore his home.
Are we going to save money to rebuild it again, or are we going to feed our kids? Masih, a sanitation employee, stated.
The incident has also eroded the faith the 39-year-old had in his Muslim neighbors, according to him.
“Our colony was a picture of harmony and calm. But this one event has brought us back a long way. I don’t feel secure or comfortable here anymore,” he declared.