A furious mob has attacked churches in Pakistan and set fire to the homes of Christians, after allegations of blasphemy.
Thousands of Muslim men armed with sticks attacked townships in Jaranwala, in Punjab, after two Christian residents were accused of blasphemy. The army had to be brought in to contain them.
According to reports, rioters set fire to the Salvation Army Church, United Presbyterian Church, Allied Foundation Church, and Saint Paul Catholic Church. One witness said all 17 churches in the area were attacked. There have yet to be reports of casualties.
The rampage, which began at 9am yesterday (August 16), was reported by a partner of UK-based Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide.
He said: ‘Certain elements within the local Muslim community reportedly seized upon accusations to incite violence, making announcements through local mosques that urged people to gather and respond by igniting the Christian towns.’
Jaranwala is less than 80 miles from Lahore, the provincial capital. Some Christians have accused police of standing back and letting the attacks take place.
According to the Pakistan Observer, Punjab’s caretaker government has described the attack as a carefully considered plan designed to spark chaos. It has ordered an investigation and has arrested 100 of the estimated 5,000 rioters.
Videos posted to social media showed church buildings blazing and the mob destroying and burning furniture pulled from them. Witnesses say they piled up Bibles and set fire to them.
Rioters descended on the town after torn pages of the Koran were discovered nearby. It’s alleged that blasphemies had been scrawled on the pages. According to Al Jazeera, those pages were brought before a local religious leader who called for protests.
Women and children had to be evacuated as the mob descended and more than 150 families were moved out from around the Salvation Army church. Rioters set houses on fire, looted them and desecrated a Christian cemetery.
Release International’s partner reports: ‘Many Christian families have sought refuge outside the city, relying on the support of friends and relatives.’
He says: ‘It is deplorable to see the peace-loving Pakistani Christian community once again being collectively punished at mere unsubstantiated allegations of blasphemy.
‘We are appalled by the lack of response by the Pakistan government despite the sheer magnitude of this violence.’
Another Release International partner in Pakistan is today meeting with political leaders and government officials to provide help to the Christians and seek assurances over security. He says, ‘Urgent prayers are needed.’
The British Asian Christian Association say hundreds of homes have been destroyed and thousands have been left without shelter.
The Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, Bishop Azad Marshall tweeted: ‘Words fail me. We, bishops, priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident.
‘A church building is being burnt as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed, having been falsely accused of violating the Holy Koran.
‘We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately.’
Media reports say police have been directed to remain on high alert outside places of worship.
Tough new laws
A week before the attack, tough new laws were passed in Pakistan increasing to life imprisonment the sentence for blasphemy against the family of the prophet Mohammed.The Criminal Law Amendment Act was passed in the Senate on August 7.
Release International warns the new laws will only stir up grievances and worsen the growing culture of intolerance in the country. ‘Men of violence are looking for pretexts and excuses to attack the Christian community,’ says CEO Paul Robinson. ‘We have long been calling for these divisive blasphemy laws to be repealed.’
Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice reports that more than 2,000 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, and 88 have been murdered, simply on the basis of unproven allegations.
India media reported: ‘There is a palpable fear of burning Christian residences on the pretext of blasphemy. Christians, their places of worship and their properties, are all under serious attack from extremists.’
The AP news agency say former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif condemned the outbreak: ‘There is no place for violence in any religion.’
The accused Christians face charges of defiling the Koran and blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed, which commands a death sentence under Pakistan law.
In practice, no one accused of blasphemy has yet to be executed by the state, but up to 100 have been assassinated by vigilantes since the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan in 1947.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemned the attacks in the Dawn newspaper: ‘The frequency and scale of such attacks – which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable - appear to have increased in recent years.
‘Not only has the state failed to protect its religious minorities, but it has also allowed the far right to permeate and fester within society and politics. The government must waste no time in raising and equipping special police forces to protect religious minorities’ sites of worship.’
Last week, a teacher at a language centre was shot dead after being accused of blasphemy in Kech district. And in February, a man was lynched after being accused of desecrating the Koran in Nankana Sahib, reports Dawn.
In July, Release International reported that thousands of Christians in Sargodha, which is less than 100 miles from Jaranwala, had to flee their homes after mosque calls for protests over an alleged blasphemy.
On that occasion, the charge concerned derogatory posters allegedly depicting Mohammed and his wife Aisha. The posters were also said to have applauded the recent burning and desecration of the Koran in Sweden and Denmark.
Some commentators believe the posters may have been pasted up by provocateurs to instigate violence against the Christian colony.
The rise of social media means it is quicker and easier than ever to galvanise a mob. Christians have been burnt to death in rioting after calls to protest have been broadcast from mosque loudspeakers.
Over the years there have been numerous false and malicious claims of blasphemy to incite violence, target Christian communities and to settle scores. Blasphemy allegations, even if unproven can destroy the lives of the accused and make them the target of militants and fanatics.
While Christians make up less than two per cent of the population, a disproportionate number of the accused are Christians. Christians were targeted after the recent spate of Koran burnings in Sweden and Denmark. They were attacked even though they had condemned the book burnings.
‘Release International is appalled and horrified at this latest attack on Pakistan’s Christian community,’ says CEO Paul Robinson. ‘We call for prayers for the victims and for peace to be restored.
‘There is a rising tide of intolerance in Pakistan towards religious minorities resulting in death and destruction. The tightening of the blasphemy laws will only pour fuel on those flames.’
The tougher blasphemy law will not only impact Christians. It is likely to affect Pakistan’s Shia Muslim minority, who disagree with the Sunni majority over who is the rightful successor to Mohammed. For verbalising that disagreement, they could risk life imprisonment.
UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs. It supports prisoners of faith and their families, Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.
Rioters filmed themselves attacking churches in Jaranwala. See below:
Release International has given interviews on the attacks on Premier Radio and Trans World Radio. You can watch the TWR interview below: