Thousands of Christians in the Sargodha district of Punjab in Pakistan have fled their homes after mosque calls for Muslims to protest over an alleged blasphemy.
There are warnings the entire security of the Christian community in Maryam Town is now at risk after offending posters were pasted on mosque walls.
The derogatory posters allegedly depicted Mohammed and his wife Aisha. They also applauded the recent burning and desecration of the Koran in Sweden.
Some commentators believe the posters may have been pasted up by provocateurs to instigate violence against the neighbouring Christian colony.
It’s the third allegation of blasphemy in recent weeks.
Release International’s partner in Pakistan says Christians in the town and surrounding areas ‘are under great fear.’ He adds: ‘Thousands have fled their homes to save their lives from extremist attack.’
Other sources report up to 4,000 Christians have fled Maryam Town – almost half the population – after hundreds of Muslims began filling the road in protest, blocking traffic and burning tyres, according to Morning Star News.
‘This incident has put the security of the entire community at risk,’ former lawmaker Tahir Naveed Chaudhry told the news agency. He feared the posters could have been put up by agitators to trigger riots against Christians.
‘This points to a deliberate attempt to spark religious unrest and target Christians,’ he told Morning Star News.
Mr Chaudhry condemned the desecration of the Koran and called for Christians to cooperate fully with police investigations to find those responsible.
This marks the third incident of its kind in less than a month, exacerbating tensions in the already volatile region.
Those tensions began to rise after two Christians were accused of posting messages on Facebook insulting Islam.
In June, Haroon Shahzad allegedly posted a passage of scripture on the social media outlet and was accused of blasphemy.
Haroon was prevented from attending his own bail hearing in July by angry protesters. They hijacked the court hearing, forcing his lawyer to escape through the rear exit.
Then, on July 8 another Christian, Zaki Masih, was also accused of insulting Islam in a Facebook post.
The poster incident erupted eight days later after Muslims returned from morning prayers to find flyers on the wall of their mosque next to the Christian district.
Morning Star News reports 2,120 people were accused of blasphemy in Pakistan between 1987 and 2022. A disproportionate number of those are Christians.
According to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice, 75 per cent of the blasphemy accusations were made in Punjab, which is home to a number of Christian colonies.
Incidents like these have led to mob violence in the past. Christians have been attacked, murdered and driven from their homes.
Large-scale police intervention prevented immediate violence during these latest protests, but Christians remain wary of the risk of rioting and bloodshed, given their history of persecution.
Christian leaders suspect the pamphlet incident may be an attempt by militants to exploit anger from the recent burning of the Koran in Sweden. The desecration, by an Iraqi national, provoked angry protests in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon.
Although Pakistani Christians have condemned the burning and call for peaceful coexistence, some militants in Pakistan are looking for opportunities to incite tensions.
The police responded promptly to this latest incident, and Christians are grateful for their swift intervention. But they make a plea for ongoing efforts to defuse religious tensions in the area to head off further violence.
‘Christians in Pakistan are disproportionately accused of blasphemy,’ says Paul Robinson, CEO of UK-based Release International. ‘Many have faced death threats even after they’ve been found to be innocent. Some have been killed by vigilantes.
‘Release International, which supports persecuted Christians around the world, has long been calling for the repeal of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which are often deliberately invoked to punish Christians or to settle scores.
‘As the situation remains volatile, Release International urges Christians in Pakistan to interact with their Muslim neighbours with wisdom and grace and to convey God’s love and peace.
‘Please pray for the safety, peaceful coexistence, and continued police protection for Christians in the region.’
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, prisoners of faith and their families. It also supports Christians suffering oppression and violence, and those forced to flee.