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Churches burnt during latest unrest in Pakistan

18 August 2023


Christians stand inside the hall of a church in Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, on Thursday, left in ruins after an arson attack

Christians stand inside the hall of a church in Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, on Thursday, left in ruins after an arson attack

AN ALLEGATION of blasphemy against two Christians in Pakistan has sparked a wave of sectarian attacks on churches and Christian communities.

Violence broke out in Jaranwala, in the diocese of Faisalabad, after two men were accused of tearing pages from the Qur’an. The two men, reportedly brothers, have been charged with blasphemy — a charge that is punishable by death in Pakistan, although the death sentence has yet to be enforced.

The men were charged after torn pages of the sacred text with blasphemous content scribbled on them were allegedly found near a Christian community.

Riots broke out on Wednesday morning after reports of the allegation circulated on social media, and churches and clergy were attacked by a mob.

Videos circulating on social media show police standing by while protesters destroyed church buildings.

Yassir Bhatti, a 31-year-old Christian, was one of those who was forced to flee their homes. “They broke the windows, doors, and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the church to be burnt,” he told the AFP news agency. “They also burnt and desecrated Bibles. They were ruthless.”

More than 120 people have been arrested after the violence, the government of Pakistan says.

Eight churches, including a Roman Catholic church and a Presbyterian church, have been burned and clergy have been attacked. Women and children had to be evacuated from one largely Christian district around a Salvation Army church, which was razed. Crowds burned Bibles in the streets, the National Commission for Human Rights in Pakistan reported. It said on social media that the “situation is sad and shameful. Blasphemy laws have repeatedly been misused with impunity. Police must take strong and swift action against perpetrators of this violence.”

The Moderator of the Church of Pakistan, the Bishop of Raiwind, Dr Azad Marshall, wrote in a statement: “Words fail me as I write this. We, Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan. A church building is being burned as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed having been falsely accused of violating the Holy Qur’an.

“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.”

The secretary-general of the Anglican Communion, the Rt Revd Anthony Poggo, said that he was “deeply saddened and shocked” to hear of the attacks. “I have been in contact with Bishop Azad and join him in calling for justice and action from law enforcement. Christians and other religious communities are being unjustly persecuted as a result of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.”

Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister, Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, promised that “stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target miniorities”.

A statement from the diocese of Blackburn, which has many links to Pakistan, said that those in the diocese were “deeply troubled by the news of violence”. It continued: “We are glad to see that the Prime Minister of Pakistan has called for swift action against those responsible and we pray for all impacted by the violence, as well as the clergy and lay leaders of the churches who serve them.”

A vigil would be held in St James’s, Blackburn, on at 4 p. m. on Sunday (20 August), the statement said, and livestreamed on Facebook. “A retiring offering will be taken up to support Christian families facing persecution in the area.” 

Christians make up just two per cent of the population of Pakistan. Allegations of blasphemy frequently trigger violence and have led to multiple deaths, including the assassination, in 2011, of the Minister for Religious Minorities, Shahbaz Bhatti, who supported Asia Bibi, a Christian accused of blasphemy (News, 4 March 2011). Mrs Bibi was eventually freed after ten years on death row (News, 2 November 2018). Earlier this month, a teacher was killed after being accused of blaspheming during a lecture.

The Centre for Social Justice, an independent organisation that defends minority rights, reports that, since 1987, more than 2000 people have been formally accused of blasphemy in Pakistan, and at least 88 have been killed as a result of these allegations.

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