It was a familiar scene: hundreds of angry people in the dense urban streets of a big Pakistan city, whipped up by rumors that someone had defiled a Holy Quran. Pounding on doors. Throwing rocks. Demanding blood.
This time, however, something unusual appeared in the Sandha sector of Lahore, Pakistan’s second city: police, backed by specialist national troops, charged into the mob to drive them away. They arrested dozens of people.
“It is the first time the government has succeeded in acting in time to save both the people and their homes,” Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shah told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The May 24 violence began, according to news accounts published in Pakistan, about two kilometers south of the Sandha district, where Humayyun Faisal, who works for Lahore Waste Management Company, was sweeping roads. Residents of the area spotted a man they said was burning pages of the Quran. A crowd quickly gathered and was preparing to “burn him alive,” one witness later told reporters, before police took the man into custody. Local Christians felt they had no option but to see Faisal taken in for his own immediate safety – he was well-known in the area as having severe mental health problems, and as a drug addict.
Police charged Faisal, 30, with desecration of the Quran, punishable with life imprisonment (in Pakistan that means 25 years). The law, widely popular among the country’s voters, also is widely condemned by human-rights organisations around the world.
Though Faisal was in police custody, about 300 people marched on the Gulshan-e-Ravi police station at about 4 p.m., holding signs saying the Quran had been desecrated. Then they moved into the small Christian neighborhood where Faisal had lived prior to his arrest.
Officials from the Lahore and Punjab state government repeatedly urged the crowd to peacefully disperse, to no avail. The mob pelted the police with stones, injuring several, including Haider Ashraf, the police deputy inspector general for operations.
“Some were demanding that the suspect be immediately executed in front of the public,” Ashraf told World Watch Monitor.
Two months earlier, after two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside two churches in a Christian neighborhood in the Youhanabad district of Lahore, an angry mob snatched two suspects, both Muslim, from police custody and burned them. The men later were declared to have had no connection to the bombings.
On May 24 in Faisal’s neighborhood, Ashraf said some in the angry crowd “were insisting that the suspect be handed to the mob so that in the way that the two Muslims were lynched and burned in Youhanabad, he could be meted out the same punishment.”
Pastor Riaz Malik, a resident of the Christian neighborhood, told World Watch Monitor he was passing by the Gulshan-e-Ravi Police Station and had seen the protest. “I immediately reached home and alerted everyone in the street of a possible attack,” he said.
Initially there were young men who called names and kept calling others to arrive there, Malik said.
“Soon the mob swelled to hundreds,” he said. “They tore religious symbols, pelted houses with stones and then looted some of them.”
Another resident, Sharafat Randhawa, told World Watch Monitor he was trapped in his home with his wife, daughter, two daughters-in -law and a grandson.
“I locked the door and went on the top roof from where I could see the entire mob,” Randhawa said. “Among the crowd one tall man was repeatedly inciting everyone to bring out all Christian women, men, children and elderly, and set them on fire.”
Elishba Alamgir, 20, called her father at about 6 p.m. and told him men were trying to enter the house, which became a target because it was in front of Faisal’s house. “My daughter and son were alone at home when this attack took place,” said the father, Chaudhry Alamgir, Vice President of the Minority Wing of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (Lahore Chapter).
“‘I have hid myself behind a cupboard and am holding two knives. I will kill myself if they manage to enter the house,’ “Alamgir said his daughter told him. “I was away”, he went on “and there was too much of a crowd outside, so we could only cry on the phone, and do nothing more than that.”
By 8 p.m. “the number swelled to about 2000 or more,” Pastor Malik said. “Then the mobs started breaking into several houses and plundering them as well. They were trying to break doors and shouting at us in abusive language.”
A Punjab provincial Minister, Rana Mashhood Ahmed Khan, and Muhammad Usman, head of the district civil authority, asked Punjab provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to dispatch two contingents of Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force that provides border and internal security during peacetime.
Police lobbed tear gas into the protesters, then charged into the crowd with batons. The Sandha Police Station registered a case against 48 people, charging them under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law. With the Rangers in place, the crowd dispersed and the situation was under control by about 10 p.m.
Pakistan’s national and provincial authorities have not always ordered a prompt police response to religiously motivated violence. This time it was different.
“Religion is a sensitive matter for us but no such lawlessness can be allowed to rule the country,” police leader Ashraf said. “We were trying to negotiate with the protesters but they were getting out of control and making inhumane demands. Those who instigated them had fled from the scene after realising the gravity of the situation. Then we called in newly-inducted riot police and reserves to charge the mob.”
Why the change in response? “Enough is enough,” Ashraf said. “Such incidents tarnish the image of our country. The Zimbabwean cricket team was touring the country and we could not afford any disturbance like this.”