Christians in Pakistan are considering how to rebuild their homes and churches in the aftermath of attacks on townships in Jaranwala, Punjab, following unsubstantiated allegations of blasphemy.
Christians were forced to meet in the open air on Sunday (August 20), after rioters burnt churches and destroyed their homes.
Partners of UK-based Release International held services out of doors after mobs set fire to houses, churches and bibles on August 16. Efforts are underway to galvanise emergency relief aid for the thousands of Christians driven from their homes.
Release International’s partners have called for action against the attackers from leading politicians and police officers. On Sunday, the Chief Minister of Punjab, Mohsan Naqvee promised displaced Christians that justice would be done and help given to rebuild the destroyed churches and Christian homes.
During the attack on August 16, thousands of Muslims descended on Jaranwala. Initial estimates say they burned down five churches, damaged 21 others, torched 40 homes of Christians, and attacked more than 100 others.
But a new report by Human Rights Focus Pakistan estimates the damage was even more widespread. They say 19 churches were burned, 89 Christian houses were destroyed and more than 400 homes damaged.
The rampage against three Christian townships in the area followed claims over mosque loudspeakers that torn pages of the Koran had been found in the Christian district.
Thousands of protestors armed with sticks were finally restrained by the army. But first they set fire to churches, including the Salvation Army, United Presbyterian Church, Allied Foundation Church, and Saint Paul Catholic Church.
Release International’s partner in Pakistan says, ‘Thank God there were no injuries or deaths, because after the announcement on the mosque loudspeakers, every Christian managed to flee. They left everything behind to save their lives.’
A government source was quoted in the Pakistan Observer describing the attack as a carefully considered plan designed to spark chaos. So far 100 rioters have been arrested.
Release International’s partner, Reverend Waseem Khokhar visited the aftermath of the attack under the protection of the Punjab police. He said, ‘We don’t have words to describe the terrible destruction of church buildings, Bibles and everything in them. All we could see were ashes.’
Call to attack
One pastor told the Release International team that as the call to attack was broadcast over mosque loudspeakers, ‘we instantly decided to flee and hide to save our lives.’
He said he had lost his church and his home and had nothing left with which to survive. The same was true of his congregation.
A Roman Catholic priest said 26 churches had been attacked and 150 houses damaged.
Release International’s partners have met the Inspector General of the police and are hoping to meet the country’s Prime Minister over the coming week.
Reverend Waseem asked leading politicians and police officers why the whole community was being punished for the alleged crime of one or two people. If a crime had been committed, he said the guilty party should be arrested and punished, but justice should be carried out by judges in the courts, not by rioters in the streets. And he called for efforts to persuade the Muslim community to exercise restraint.
He told Release International that Christians had begun to return to their homes to find them badly damaged by fire. Food and water were the immediate priorities, which were being met by Christians in the provincial capital Lahore.
‘Next, we are praying and planning to meet their basic needs for food, clothing, bedding, as well as providing financial help to repair their homes.’
Release International calls for prayer for pastors and Christians in the area who have lost everything and have no means of survival.
The attacks are considered as possible retaliation for the burning and desecration of the Koran in Sweden and Denmark. Lashkar-e-Janghwi, an extremist organisation in Pakistan, declared it has prepared suicide bombers to attack churches and Christian leaders. As a result, the army has been put in a state of vigilance.
‘This latest terrible incident makes it clear yet again that it is the innocent who are blamed and punished when mob violence is allowed to rule,’ says Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International.
‘Time and again, we see Christians’ lives destroyed by false accusations of blasphemy. Extremists are looking for opportunities to attack the Christian minority and drive them from their homes, and we have seen repeatedly over the years that they are prepared to manufacture evidence in order to do so.
‘This current allegation of blasphemy, like so many others, is unproven. However, the undisputed fact is that churches and Christian homes have been burnt down, and Bibles put to the torch.
‘Nevertheless, the teachings of Christ tell us to bless those who curse us and pray for those who despitefully use us. And we call for prayer for the Christian community in Pakistan that it will continue to bless its neighbours, and to do all within its power to live in peace among them.
‘We call on Christians in the UK and Northern Ireland to join us in prayer that the men of violence will be stilled, and that peace will reign.
Repeal blasphemy law
‘We will continue to press for the repeal of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which are being used as the excuse to justify acts of violence.’
Pakistan’s Centre for Social Justice reports that of the 2,000 people accused of blasphemy since 1987, 88 have been murdered, simply on the basis of unproven allegations. A disproportionate number of the accused are Christians.
Earlier this month, 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, according to the Pakistan press.
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 another alleged blasphemy.
‘This has the makings of a disturbing trend,’ says Paul Robinson, ‘and the Pakistan authorities must take immediate action to restore order.’
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.