Not safe to go back

August 20, 2023

Many members of the Christian community in Jaranwala remain displaced after the August 16 violence

Not safe to go back


have three children. All three have been quiet since the incident; out of fear and trauma,” says Ashraf Masih. Masih, a resident of Christian Colony – and his family, have been hiding in a field on the outskirts of Jaranwala town for three days.

When the rioting began on August 16, he had nowhere to go. A friend offered him refuge on his farm. “We have nothing to eat and no milk or water to give to the children. My friend sneaks in at night and gives us some food so that nobody knows we’re here,” says Masih.

“We are still displaced,” Masih tells The News on Sunday (TNS). “We cannot go back to our homes yet. So we’re camping out here under the open skies,” he gestures. “…neither the police nor the administration are willing to guarantee our safety; so going back is not an option.”

Masih says had the police been more diligent and reached the mosques early in the morning – soon after the calls for agitation - the mob and the violence could have been better contained.

Routines of a normal life remain suspended.

In Issa Nagri, Christian Town, Nasir Colony and some other Christian settlements, debris from demolition and burning is piled up next to churches and houses. The residents are too afraid so far to return.

Most of the Christians living in these areas had evacuated their homes to save their lives before violence began on August 16.

Those who have returned to their homes are struck by grief and traumatised by the riots. There are efforts at offering support and solace but many remain displaced and fearful.

Naziran Bibi, 50, and her family, are amongst those who have returned home to Issa Nagri, after having had to evacuate in a hurry.

“When it was announced from the mosque that someone had committed blasphemy and the Muslim community was gathering outside, everyone left their houses as they were,” she shudders. “…some of us were without our dupattas, others ran barefoot. The only thought on our mind was that our lives were in danger.”

According to Bibi, she sheltered at a relative’s place for two days. When she returned, she found that everything she had left behind had been burnt. Her house was a picture of ruin.

“The houses that were locked were broken into and looted. The goods that were too heavy to carry easily were burnt to ashes,” she says.

Mohammad Afzal, a resident of Chamra Mandi, who complained to the police, insists that the Holy Quran was desecrated.

He says that blasphemous matter was sent to Imam Qari Yunus of the local mosque. He says announcements were made in the mosques thereafter.

“The [blasphemy] incident was also reported to the police who visited the place. They remarked that the culprits had fled and asked me to visit the police station and file an application for the registration of an FIR, he adds.

Afzal says had the police taken prompt action and arrested the culprits the matter would have been defused.

A government building, the residence of Assistant Commissioner Shaukat Masih Sindhu, was also targeted by the rioters. According to eyewitnesses, the protestors chanted hate slogans against the official and demanded his suspension from service.

According to the police, a case was registered at the City police station against two brothers following a desecration of Quran complaint. The suspects have been arrested. Another 200 people have been detained on charges under the Anti-Terrorism Act and other provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code.

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“We cannot go back to our homes yet so we’re camping out here under the open skies,” he gestures, “…neither the police nor the administration are willing to guarantee our safety; so going back is not an option.” 

125 suspects arrested on the charge of rioting were presented before duty judge Raja Shahid Zameer who handed them in police custody for two days.

Among those named and arrested for inciting riots were Jamaat Ahle Sunnat ameer Mufti Muhammad Younis and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan leader Asifullah Shah Bukhari.

A spokesperson for City Police Officer Usman Akram Gondal said the police did not use force against the protestors to avoid loss of life. He said this gave some people the impression that the police were late in arriving at the scene.

A Special Branch report says arson and vandalism started at around 8am continued till 3pm. It says the rioters torched 21 churches and more than a hundred houses. It also says valuables were looted from many houses that were vandalised.

A report prepared by the Jaranwala tehsildar (revenue officer) says 19 churches and 86 houses were burnt in the riots.

Advocate Atif Jameel, a member of the District Human Rights Committee, says the rioting started early in the morning. He says the police and the administration did not initially take the matter seriously.

The lawyer says that when in a meeting with the commissioner, some leaders of the Christian community raised the issue of the desecration of churches and the burning of Holy Bible, the complaint was ignored.

He says that in a similar incident in 2010 two brothers, Rashid Emmanuel and Sajid Emmanuel, residents of Waris Pura, a Christian settlement in Faisalabad city, were accused of blasphemy and shot.

He says the blasphemy complaint sound unlikely. “It is unbelievable that their name, mobile phone number and identity card number were written on the pages. How can a sane person write such stuff and then put their picture and mobile number on it, then throw it in the street?” The lawyer says that an impartial probe should be launched into the circumstances.

A representative of the Bishop of Faisalabad Father Khalid Rasheed has also said that foul play was involved. “The two brothers come from a religious family. Their fathers have done charity work as priests. How can boys from such a family insult anybody’s religion?”

“…if they do, would it not be foolish to put their pictures, names and mobile numbers on it?” he asks.

Even if the allegations were taken at face value, the bishop says, the culprits should be proceeded against according to the law.

Who gave a mob the right to accuse somebody and then attack a whole community?”

The bishop’s representative says he has never seen such large-scale pogrom in his life. “Even in Gojra, Shanti Nagar and Sangla Hill, the arson attacks were not so large scale. These people crossed all limits,” he says.

According to a study by the Centre for Research and Security Studies, 11 cases of blasphemy were registered across Pakistan between 1947 and 1987. There were three extra-judicial killings.

After the punishment for blasphemy was set at death under Section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, there was a 1,300 percent increase in the reported crime.

According to this report, during the 74 years from 1947 to 2021, 1,415 complaints of blasphemy were registered across Pakistan. 89 people named in these cases became victims of extra-judicial killing.

Most of the cases (1,098) were registered in the Punjab which also accounted for 70 extra-judicial killings.

According to a report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan during the year 2022, 47 complaints of blasphemy were registered in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, 11 in the Punjab, six in Sindh, and 9 in Islamabad.

The writer has been associated with journalism for the past decade. He tweets @ naeemahmad876

Not safe to go back