Pakistani authorities have arrested 135 people in connection with the unprecedented mob attack on 21 churches in Punjab province even as the government on Thursday ordered a high-level probe into the riots and promised to “restore” all the damaged churches and homes of the minority Christian community.
An enraged mob ransacked and torched 21 churches and several houses of Christians on Wednesday over blasphemy allegations in Jaranwala town of Faisalabad district, 130 km from Punjab’s provincial capital Lahore. A Christian cemetery and the office of the local assistant commissioner were also vandalised.
“A case has been registered against 600 suspects under terrorism and blasphemy charges,” Punjab caretaker information minister Amir Mir said on Thursday.
A Punjab police spokesman said that 135 miscreants have been arrested for attacks on churches and houses of the minority community in Jaranwala. The members of the radical group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan were among those arrested.
Mir said peace has been restored in the area and a heavy contingent of police and Rangers has been deployed outside churches and homes of the minority Christian community. He said police foiled many attempts aimed at damaging various buildings.
“The chief minister has ordered a high-level investigation into the matter and those involved in this heinous crime will not escape justice,” he said.
Meanwhile, Punjab’s Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi promised to “restore” within three to four days all the churches and the homes of the minority Christian community which were attacked and torched by the mob.
Addressing a meeting attended by religious leaders of the Christian community on Thursday, Naqvi condemned the mob violence and said such actions are against the teachings of Islam and those of the Holy Prophet.
He said the mob attack was a “planned conspiracy” to “light a fire in the country and sabotage its peace.” He vowed to prevent any such “conspiracy” in the future.
“For the future, we should sit with our minorities and chalk out a plan to prevent such incidents,” he said, urging religious leaders to spread the message of the Holy Quran among the people.
The district administration has imposed section 144 for seven days, prohibiting all kinds of assembly, except for events organised by the government in Jaranwala.
All educational institutions, markets and business establishments remained closed in Jaranwala on Thursday.
Christian community leaders in Faisalabad on Thursday assessed the damage to their holy places and houses in Jaranwala.
A total of 21 churches have either been torched or vandalised over false accusations of blasphemy, they said, adding that copies of hundreds of Bibles were set on fire.
“Twenty-one churches and 35 houses of Christians including a pastor’s residence were either burnt down completely or ransacked by the mob on Wednesday,” Pakistan Centre for Law and Justice Napoleon Qayyum told PTI.
He said although peace has been restored in the area due to the heavy deployment of police, Christians fear that Islamists might strike again.
More than 3,000 policemen and two companies of Pakistan Rangers have been deployed in Jaranwala following Wednesday’s riots.
“Most of the Christians left the area on Wednesday to save their lives and they will return only once action is taken against those who are involved in attacks on churches and Christian houses,” Qayyum said.
He said since Shaukat Masih, a Christian, was the Assistant Commissioner (AC) of Jaranwala, some local Muslims had an issue with it. “On the pretext of blasphemy, they first moved to the AC’s office to attack him. Mr Masih was lucky to escape,” he said.
“Had the authorities in Pakistan brought those involved in attacks on Christians and their holy places to justice in the past, the Jaranwala incident might have been averted,” Qayyum said, demanding the government rein in radical TLP members who are on the forefront to target minorities in Pakistan.
The Christian families who fled their homes spent the night in the open fields to save themselves.
“On reports that an enraged mob is heading towards our houses in Isa Nagri, my neighbours and I left and took refuge in open fields far from our area and spent the night over there,” a member of the Christian family told PTI.
“We can’t take our chances to return to our homes till the government provides us security and arrests those who attack our houses and holy places,” he said.
The incident sparked nationwide outrage from all political parties, civil society and the media.
“We are deeply concerned that churches and homes were targeted in response to reported Quran desecration in Pakistan,” US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.
He said that while the US backed free expression, “violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of expression,” Geo News reported.
“We urge Pakistani authorities to conduct a full investigation into these allegations and call for calm,” he said.
The Islamabad police on Thursday formed a “Minority Protection Unit” comprising 70 policemen for the “protection of minority places of worship and communities”.
The move came after Christian leaders strongly condemned what they called police inaction during the whole episode. They claimed that police played the role of silent spectators when Christian families were crying for help, and delayed their response until the residents were forced to abandon their houses, leaving them at the mercy of the attackers, the Dawn newspaper reported.
President Bishop of the Church of Pakistan Azad Marshall condemned the violence, saying the copies of the Bible were burnt and desecrated, and members of the Christian community were tortured and harassed after being “falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran.” “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 that has just celebrated independence and freedom,” he said.
“The Pakistani state has failed to provide security to the worship places of people who follow religions other than Islam. Impunity to the crimes committed in the name of religion has emboldened extremists and terrorists,” he added.
Amnesty International, in its statement, has demanded that the “authorities must ensure [the] protection of the minority Christian community”.
Rehab Mahamoor, the interim regional researcher for South Asia at Amnesty International, said the authorities should also ensure that those responsible for the arson and attacks on Churches and homes are held accountable.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures can face the death penalty. Often an accusation can cause riots and incite mobs to violence, lynching and killings.
According to the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), till August 16, 2023, around 198 persons have been accused of blasphemy, 85 per cent of them Muslims, 9 per cent Ahmadis and 4.4 per cent Christians.
It said the Punjab province recorded over 75 per cent of the abuse of blasphemy laws cases in the past 36 years. “The aggregate accused comprises 52pc of minorities despite their share (3.52pc) in the population of Pakistan,” the CSJ posted on X.
Minorities including Christians and Hindus have been frequently subjected to blasphemy allegations and some tried and even sentenced under blasphemy in Pakistan.