28 August 2023, The Tablet

Pakistani churches attacked after blasphemy allegations

The attacks began after torn pages of the Quran were discovered near a Christian neighbourhood with allegedly blasphemous content written on them.

Pakistani churches attacked after blasphemy allegations

Bishop Indrias Rehmat of Faisalabad celebrates Mass outside the St Paul’s Church, Jaranwala, which was burned by rioters.
Caritas Pakistan Faisalabad / Aid to the Church in Need

A crowd of 700 attended Mass outside their burnt-out church in Punjab on 20 August following one of the worst outbreaks of violence against Christians in Pakistan’s history. 

“Most of the people were crying in the Mass,” one community leader told Aid to the Church in Need. The Pakistani bishops’ conference observed “a day of prayer” the same day for victims of the violence. 

Hundreds of people armed with batons and sticks attacked churches in Jaranwala City in Punjab province on 16 August, after two Christian residents were accused of blasphemy.

St Paul’s Catholic Church and a Salvation Army Church were set ablaze, among nearly 30 churches attacked throughout the day along with private homes.  Around 1,000 terrified Christians spent several nights hiding in nearby sugarcane fields.

The attacks began after torn pages of the Quran were discovered near a Christian neighbourhood with allegedly blasphemous content written on them.

Two men accused of damaging the Quran have since been detained and are being investigated for blasphemy, which is punishable by death in Pakistan.  The Jaranwala police detained 207 suspects for “vandalising multiple churches and torching homes belonging to the Christian community”.

On 21 August Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore visited Christian families in Jaranwala, together with Muslim leaders and Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, Pakistan’s caretaker prime minister.  

“The Christian community has played an important role in the creation of Pakistan,” the prime minister said, adding that it is the “responsibility of every Muslim to protect minority communities”.

Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, appealed for an honest exercise of justice “in order to stop these kinds of incidents in the future”.  He also noted acts of solidarity and support from the Muslim community, condemning the extremism which led some to violence.

The World Council of Churches condemned the attacks as dramatic videos circulated showing Muslim rioters toppling crosses and setting fire to Christian property.

Bishop Azad Marshall, moderator of the Church of Pakistan which includes Anglican, Methodist and Reformed communities, said: “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.”

The Revd Sharaz Sharif Alam, general secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan, said: “This day marks one of the darkest chapters in the history of Pakistan.”

Paul Bhatti, brother of murdered Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti, told Vatican News it is unacceptable that people take the law into their hands and attack innocent Christians.

He said that the mobs had been goaded by accusations broadcast by loudspeaker from a local mosque. Yet he noted there were no deaths and injuries because people fled their homes after being forewarned by sympathetic Muslims.

Bhatti suggested that Pakistan's blasphemy laws ought to be re-examined and repealed.

On 24 August, more than 1,000 Pakistanis demonstrated outside UN headquarters in New York to urge the UN body to take decisive action to protect Pakistan’s Christians from mob attacks.

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