Blasphemy accusation sparks attacks on Christians in Pakistan

“The mobs not only burned and looted our churches and homes, they also vandalized our graveyard and the office of the assistant commissioner, who is also a Christian”, sources in Jaranwala said.

Morning Star News

LAHORE · 21 AUGUST 2023 · 11:48 CET

Belongings of Christians burned in Muslim rioting in Jaranwala, Pakistan on Aug. 16, 2023. / Photo: <a target="_blank" href="">Morning Star News</a>. ,
Belongings of Christians burned in Muslim rioting in Jaranwala, Pakistan on Aug. 16, 2023. / Photo: Morning Star News.

Instigated by mosque leaders, Muslim mobs on Wednesday (Aug. 16) burned 20 church buildings and ransacked Christian homes and businesses in Jaranwala, Pakistan after a Muslim framed two Christians in a false blasphemy case, a relative said.

The rioting began after Muslim residents of Cinema Chowk in Jaranwala, Faisalabad District, accused Umar Saleeem, known as Rocky, of desecrating pages of the Koran and writing blasphemous comments.

A relative said Rocky was leaving for work Wednesday morning when he saw a piece of paper with something written in red ink pasted on the door of a Muslim neighbor.

“When he went closer to read it, he was shocked to see a photograph of him and his younger brother Umair, alias Raja, pasted on top of the page,” the relative told Morning Star News on the condition of anonymity. “Beneath the page were some partially burnt pages of the Koran inscribed with derogatory remarks about Islam and Muhammad.”

The source said Rocky, father of a 3-month-old son, panicked after reading the note and instinctively removed the pages from the door. As if on cue, two Muslims pounced on him and snatched the pages, accusing him of committing blasphemy, the relative said.

“The allegation is ridiculous – otherwise who would name himself and his brother as the writers of the note and also put their photo on it?” the relative said. “Someone has framed them to exact revenge.”

Members of a Full Gospel Assemblies church, the 24-year-old Rocky works as a cleaner at a textile factory, while Raja, 21, works in facilities at a local government school.

A case was registered against the two Christians on Wednesday (Aug. 16) under Sections 295-B and 295-C of the blasphemy statutes, and they were taken into custody on Thursday afternoon and handed to the Counter-Terrorism Department, Punjab for investigation. Section 295- B relates to desecration of the Koran and carries a punishment of life in prison. Section 295-C relates to insulting Muhammad and is punishable by death.

Rocky and Raja surrendered to police on Thursday (Aug. 17) to help authorities tamp down the rioting. Thousands of Muslims led by local leaders of Islamist extremist parties – Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan and the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Movement – had launched attacks on churches and homes of Christians in Christian Town and Issa Nagri.

“Over 20 churches, more than 200 homes and shops, and several vehicles were burnt and destroyed by the mobs,” area evangelist Imran Bhatti said.

In his early forties, Bhatti was one of the few Christians who stayed behind while hundreds of others fled their homes as soon as they heard announcements from mosques calling on Muslims to protest against the alleged blasphemy.

More than 5,000 Christians live in Jaranwala, most of them sanitary workers on meager wages who occupy cramped homes shared by up to 18 relatives. As panic spread across the neighborhoods, some Muslims also rushed to the streets to warn and shelter their Christian neighbors, Bhatti said.

“The mobs not only burned and looted our churches and homes, they also vandalized our graveyard and the office of the assistant commissioner, who is also a Christian,” he told Morning Star News.

Kamran Bashir, a 55-year-old Christian, was one of those forced to flee their homes.

“They broke the windows, doors and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the church to be burned,” he told Morning Star News. “They also burned and desecrated Bibles, they were ruthless.”

Videos on social media show protesters destroying Christian possessions while police appear to look on.

A mother identified only as Nasreen fled with her four children just before Christian Town was attacked.

“We just left without dressing,” she told Morning Star News. “We picked up our children and just ran.”

Nasreen and her family were among several people who spent the hot and humid night in fields. She added that there were also girls and women who lay flat on the roofs of their homes in scorching heat to hide from vandals setting fire to their belongings out in the street.

“It seemed that hell had broken loose on us,” Nasreen said. “Though there are no casualties or injuries to our people, the trauma of these attacks has scarred us for life, especially our children.”

Area resident Shamroz Masih said the crowd that attacked his neighborhood had come from outside the area.

“It was an organized attack, and our people have seen the rioters carrying lists of churches in their hands,” Masih told Morning Star News. “They were armed with petrol bombs, chemicals, sticks and batons, and they destroyed anything that came in their way.”

Local Muslims tried to save them, he said.

“They quickly pinned Koranic verses on the doors of our homes in the hope that we would be spared the violence, but even this did not stop the mobs,” he added.

Slow response by police prompted renewed questions over whether the state is willing to dedicate sufficient resources to protect the country’s religious minorities.

“A police contingent arrived nearly two hours after the attacks began, but they only acted as silent spectators as hordes of youths and teenage boys plundered our churches and property with complete impunity,” Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall told Morning Star News.

Marshall said that he warned of the rioting on social media as soon as he heard about an attack on the first church, which is also the oldest in the area and belongs to The Salvation Army.

“We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice, and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter, soon after reports of the attack surfaced.

“Videos of the violence being executed in the name of blasphemy shocked millions of Pakistanis, yet the horrifying scenes failed to move our law enforcement agencies and the government,” he told Morning Star News. “Timely action could have saved our people from these colossal losses. Does our state as well as clerics and political leaders have the courage to confront this madness being carried out in the name of religion?”


‘Planned Conspiracy’

Punjab police on Thursday (Aug. 17) registered two First Information Reports (FIRs) related to the anti-Christian attacks and claimed to have arrested 130 people after the assaults drew widespread condemnation from the interntional community.

The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the violence, while former Pakistan Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif called the incidents “disturbing,” adding that “such madness can’t be allowed.”

Anwaar Ul Haq Kakar, interim prime minister who took over from Sharif last week, vowed “stern action.”

The government deployed paramilitary rangers and over 3,000 police personnel from various units, including the Elite Force, in the area late on Wednesday night (Aug. 16) to restore order as several small groups of Muslims continued to attack Christian homes in other areas.

In a meeting with Christian leaders on Thursday, Punjab Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi announced that the Punjab government would restore all the churches and homes ransacked in the incident.

“Whatever damages took place, as a government, Muslims and humans, we will restore them,” Naqvi said.

Declining to address criticism over delayed police response, he said the mob attacks were a “planned conspiracy” to “light a fire in the country and sabotage its peace.”

Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) Chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi at a press conference in Lahore on Thursday apologized for the Jaranwala violence and reaffirmed the commitment to protect “our Christian brothers.”

“We are ashamed,” Ashrafi said. “We failed to fulfill our responsibility as an elder brother… We seek forgiveness… Yesterday, I saw a video in which young girls were hiding in the fields; they spent the entire night there… these are the same girls who our holy prophet called blessings.”

Pakistan Army Chief of Staff General Asim Munir also condemned the Jaranwala violence, describing it as “extremely tragic and totally intolerable.”

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

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