The Punjab provincial government’s unannounced bulldozing of a Church-owned site that destroyed a church, a school for poor girls, and homes for the poor, elderly and homeless was “a criminal act of land-grabbing,” the local Catholic bishop says.
The families living on the two-acre site in Lahore’s Garhi Shahu district were awoken at 6:30 a.m. On Jan. 10 and told to evacuate their homes. The bulldozers destroyed at least seven houses, which still had the occupants’ belongings inside.
“How can they do such a thing, just to come in, wreck a charitable institution and ruin the lives of people living there? They do not listen to anybody.” Bishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore told Aid to the Church in Need.
He said the Church had proof of ownership of the site dating back to 1887. The incident has caused fears of further property seizures by the province’s government, which is controlled by the Muslim League “N.”
Zoniba Richard, 62, was one of those who lost their homes. Her belongings were destroyed and she was left homeless, without family to go to, she said. She slept out in the cold on the first night after the demolition.
Asked about her plans for the future, she told Aid to the Church in need: “I don’t know. I can only trust in God.”
A number of families and people working in the school had nowhere to go and camped overnight on the demolished site. They have held protest marches against the action.
Fr. Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, the national director of the Catholic Church’s National Commission for Justice and Peace, said that the Catholic Church had not received prior warning of the demolition plans.
“People are very sad. They are very angry. They are still sitting in the place that they call home,” he said.
He said a controversy over the property ownership began a few years ago when the site’s main building was used as a refuge for destitute women.
One of the women who was given refuge converted to Islam and began to harass the religious sisters who ran the refuge. She questioned the rightful ownership of two rooms which she occupied.
State authorities were notified and subsequent discussions with the Church broke down.
Local government officials claim that the site was declared state land by the authorities in 2007. The government notified the owners of the center several times, local newspaper said.
The Anglican Bishop of Lahore, Alexander John Malik, also condemned the demolition and called on the government to rebuild what was destroyed. He said a blasphemy law case should be filed for the desecration of the church and its Bibles and crosses.
Bishop Malik said the destruction shows “unaccounted power” and explains grave injustice and cruelty towards non-Muslims (and) religious minorities in Pakistan.”
Hostility towards minority groups in Pakistan has increased in recent years. Punjab governor Salman Taseer was assassinated on Jan. 4, 2011 for opposing the oppression of minority groups and the country’s strict anti-blasphemy law. Pakistan’s minorities minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic who was the only Christian in the cabinet, was assassinated two months later.