Pakistan’s national assembly joined a chorus of condemnation Monday following Saturday’s rioting in Lahore by Muslims that prompted Christians to flee before scores of their houses were burned.
“We fled for our lives, do not ask us where we are,” a Christian teacher sobbed to World Watch Monitor before her phone went dead.
“Everything is gone and they will come and get us next,” said another Christian, who refused to leave Badami Bagh, a working-class urban sector of Lahore. “We have decided it is best to stay and lay low. If they come we will also flee, but we pray they will not. We do not know if their rage has been satisfied.”
News reports quote Lahore police as saying the rioting was sparked by an argument between a Christian and a Muslim who had been talking over drinks. Savan Masih, a sweeper, had been drinking with a friend, Shahid Imran, in Shahid’s barber shop, as was their custom, according to the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a Christian organisation.
The next day, Friday, Shahid claimed Savan had uttered a blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. Under Pakistan law, insulting Mohammed is punishable by death. Though the penalty has yet to be carried out, the mere accusation of blasphemy alone has, in other cases, led to rioting and murder.
Press reports say a mosque broadcast the complaint from loudspeakers. Upwards of 2,000 Muslims converged on the Joseph Colony portion of Badami Bagh, threatening to burn Christians in their homes unless they left. Hundreds of families fled.
On Saturday, an estimated 3,000 Muslims, some armed, and some with flammable chemicals, looted and torched about 150 houses in the area and beat Christians who were unable to flee, including children and the elderly, according to news accounts. So far, there have been no reports of deaths.
“There is nothing left in the houses of the Christians of Joseph Colony. They have lost everything and they are helpless,” the legal-aid center said.
Among the houses torched was that of Savan Masih, who has three children and lives with his parents. One news report claims announcements were made at mosques to kill his family. Masih has since been arrested and charged with blasphemy under section 295-C of the Pakistan penal code.
Throughout the rest of the weekend, Christians across Pakistan waged angry demonstrations, clashing with police in Lahore and Karachi. In Lahore, police used batons and fired into the air to try to calm the crowds. Some 300 protesters were arrested, according to the Pakistan Daily Times, and 60 were injured. Several police were also hurt by stones, according to Reuters. Crowds in Lahore pelted a bus station with stones and damaged shops belonging to Muslims. Street fighting with police continued into the evening.
The Punjab Law Minister warned Christians not to take the law into their own hands, and not all demonstrations were violent.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Monday issued an order demanding a report on the Badami Bagh riots. The order said Lahore police had failed to protect residents in the face of Saturday’s angry mob. Police say they have arrested about 150 people.
Tensions are running high in Pakistan, where elections are slated for May. In the Joseph Colony, Christians have been anxious for years.
“We live in constant fear of being accused of blasphemy,” one resident told World Watch Monitor last year.
“One day they will get us for blasphemy,” added a Christian worker. “They always say we should stop teaching people about God’s ways and freedom, and if we do not they will come looking for us and make up a case against us.”
Christians have lived in Badami Bagh since Pakistan and India were partitioned in 1947. Many of them are poor, illiterate and work as domestic servants for their Muslim neighbours.
“We live here because God has called us to minister and reach those who have never been able to read or write,” said a teacher who lives in the area. “Many of our students and the people we work with have been abused and have faced persecution in so many different ways.”
The attacks on the Joseph Colony were condemned by the President of the Pakistan Christian Congress, Nazir Bhatti, who told the Pakistan Christian Post, “The Punjab government has failed to provide security of life and property to Punjab’s 18 million Christians.” Christians make up the largest minority group in Punjab.
The Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement has defended many Christians in Pakistan against charges of blasphemy, which it says often are made to settle scores with rivals. Saturday’s attack, the center said, was motivated by a desire to seize land belonging to Christians.
On Monday, the National Assembly interrupted its agenda to condemn the attack, while the Supreme Court rejected an initial Punjab government report on the rioting. The bench threw out the report because it failed to mention the reasons behind the incident or state what actions had been taken against the perpetrators. Minority-rights organizations across the country added their condemnation of the attack on the Christian enclave.
Christians in Joseph Colony who lost their homes have been offered compensation of at least 500,000 rupees, or about US $5,000, and promised their homes will be quickly rebuilt.
(Additional sources: BBC; The Centre for Legal Aid; Assistance and Settlement; Pakistan Christian Post; Reuters; Pakistan Daily Times; the News International, Pakistan; Express News Pakistan; DAWN.com)