Church responds to mob attack on Christians in Pakistan

pakistan Catholics attend Mass at Sacred Heart Cathedral, the seat of the Archdiocese of Lahore, on Aug. 20, 2023, four days after mob attacked several Pakistani churches over blasphemy allegations. More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalized when hundreds rampaged through a Christian neighbourhood in Jaranwala in Punjab province on Aug. 16. | Credit: ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Church officials strongly condemned a recent attack on Christians in Sargodha, Pakistan, and expressed disappointment over the level of intolerance in Pakistani society.

On May 25, a violent mob attacked the homes of two Christian families in Mujahid Colony, Sargodha City, about 150 miles south of Islamabad in Punjab province of Pakistan. The mob burned and vandalized the Christian houses and their shoe factory after Nazir Masih, a Catholic, was accused of blasphemy for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran.

Masih, 76, spent a couple of years in Saudia Arabia. After his return, he set up a shoe factory and had a successful business.

Tahir Naveed Chaudhry Advocate, a Catholic political leader from Sargodha, told CNA that at about 6 a.m. on Saturday Ayub Gondal, one of Masih’s Muslim neighbors, accused Masih of committing blasphemy by allegedly desecrating the Quranic pages and throwing them on the road in front of the factory.

As the rumors spread, about 2,000 people from the same locality and some from nearby villages gathered outside Masih’s house, Ifran Gill, Masih’s nephew, told CNA. People also came from as far as 20 miles away.

The mob destroyed electric meters and outdoor air conditioning units and set the Christians’ homes and shop ablaze. Eventually, they brought them out, hurled stones at them, and beat them with sticks. They tried to lynch Masih, who was seriously injured.

In a statement, Bishop Samson Shukardin, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference and chairperson of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), the human rights body of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, shared his concerns about the safety of Christians in Pakistan.

After the incident, a Christian delegation led by Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi and Sen. Tahir Khalil Sindhu, a Catholic, met Sargodha District Police Officer Assad Malhi.

Sindhu told CNA that the delegation demanded that police provide safety to the local Christians, especially the victim’s family, and that the attackers should be arrested and brought to justice. 

According to local Christians, members of a hardliner religious organization, Lashkar-e-Labak Pakistan, especially one of its local leaders, Muhammad Akram, played a key role in the attack on the Christians.

The same organization was involved in the attack on Christian houses in and around Jaranwala city in August last year in which the attackers burned down 24 churches and destroyed and looted 89 Christian houses. Christians are still recovering from that incident.

Some local Muslims tried to intervene, but the mob did not listen to them, accusing them of supporting a blasphemer.

Police approached the scene within half an hour and tried to rescue the Christian families. The mob resisted and threw stones at the policemen. Eleven policemen and officers were injured and some were hospitalized.

Due to the intervention of Rizwan Gill, a local Muslim member of the provincial assembly, police brought Masih in an ambulance to Military Hospital Sargodha. Due to security issues, only his son can stay with him.

Despite strong resistance from the mob, police rescued 10 Christians and transported them to a safe location, Gill said. To disperse the crowd, police were forced to use tear gas.

Christians lauded the police for saving the Christian families. Samuel Pyara, a Catholic human rights activist, praised the police officers’ bravery and timely intervention to control the situation.

Due to the action of the police, no other Christian house or church was attacked, Gill said.

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Sindh, a member of the upper house of Parliament, told CNA that Masih was operated on Monday, but his condition is still critical. He has been sent to Islamabad for further treatment.

To control the situation, the district administration imposed Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code banning rallies, demonstrations, and gatherings in the district until May 31.

The police presence has also increased around Christian localities and churches.

On Sunday, special prayer services were held in churches across the country. Church leaders prayed for peace and tolerance in the country.

Malhi told the media that Chief Minister of Punjab Maryam Nawaz had issued directions for all possible measures for saving human lives.

He also disclosed that cases were registered against more than 400 unidentified suspects, including Ayub Gondal, on behalf of the state under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 and sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. To date, police have arrested more than 100 suspects for mob violence and attempts to lynch Masih.

Emmanuel Athar Juliun, a Catholic and member of the Punjab Assembly, has submitted a motion at the Punjab Assembly Secretariat for debate on the incident in the assembly.

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According to Muhammad Jahangir, an activist of Lashkar-e-Labak Pakistan, police have also filed a case against Masih under the blasphemy law.

Christian, Muslim, and Hindu rights groups have organized protest rallies in many major cities, including Faisalabad and Karachi. Safina Javed, a Catholic human rights activist from Karachi, told CNA that people from all walks of life attended the protest rally that was organized by Minority Rights March and demanded the repeal of blasphemy laws.

Since the controversial blasphemy laws were introduced in Pakistan, blasphemy accusations have been widely used against Christians to settle personal scores.

Mob attacks on Christians in Pakistan have been continuous.

In addition to terrorist attacks on churches, Christian neighborhoods have been attacked because of alleged blasphemy allegations. Last year in Jaranwala, 89 Christian houses and 24 churches were burned down.

Christians make up 1.5% of the total population of the country.

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