Pakistani police have arrested two prime suspects involved in the unprecedented attacks on 21 churches and nearly three dozen homes of the minority Christian community over blasphemy allegations, Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi has said.
He praised the efforts of the Punjab chief secretary and inspector general of police, saying both of them played a key role in ensuring the arrests of the key suspects.
An enraged mob ransacked and torched 21 churches and 35 homes of Christians on Wednesday over blasphemy allegations in Jaranwala town of Faisalabad district, 130 km from Punjab’s provincial capital Lahore.
“Major breakthrough in the Jaranwala Incident – both main accused now in CTD Custody. Appreciation for Chief Secretary Punjab and IG Punjab for their relentless efforts…,” Naqvi posted on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, on Thursday.
In a separate post on Friday, he wrote that mosques across Pakistan’s Punjab province will have Friday sermons focussing on the rights of minorities.
“Today Friday’s sermons across Punjab will focus on the Rights of Minorities, teachings from the Holy Quran and Prophet Muhammad (PBUH),” he said.
“Amid challenging times, let’s emphasise that such incidents should not be coloured by religion. Interfaith harmony is among the basic teachings of Islam. Grateful to religious scholars for their patience and support in unmasking those seeking to disrupt our nation’s peace,” he said.
Punjab police arrested at least 140 people and registered five cases on Thursday, a day after the violence broke out.
Among those arrested by the police include the main suspect Muhammad Yasin, identified through a video in which he was seen making an announcement on loudspeakers of mosques to incite Muslims against the religious minority.
The members of the extremist group Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were also among those arrested in connection with the violence.
The Jaranwala incident evoked widespread condemnation, with national leaders and international organisations calling for justice for the people whose homes and places of worship were ransacked and destroyed.
Army chief General Asim Munir on Thursday termed the incident “extremely tragic and totally intolerable” and pledged that perpetrators involved in the attacks will be brought to justice.
“There is no space for such incidents of intolerance and extreme behaviour by any segment of the society against anyone, particularly against minorities,” he was quoted as saying by the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) – the media wing of the army.
US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters that his country was “deeply concerned” over the targetting of churches and homes in response to reported Quran desecration in Pakistan.
“We urge Pakistani authorities to conduct a full investigation into these allegations and call for calm,” he said.
Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) Chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi apologised for the Jaranwala violence and reaffirmed the commitment to protect “our Christian brothers”, the Dawn newspaper reported.
“We are ashamed. We failed to fulfil our responsibility as an elder brother âæ we seek forgiveness,” he said at a press conference here.
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 Punjab province recorded over 75 per cent of the abuse of blasphemy laws cases in the past 36 years.
“The aggregate accused comprises 52 per cent of minorities despite their share (3.52 per cent) 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.