A Pakistani anti-terrorism court on Saturday (28 Jan) acquitted every one of the more than 100 suspects accused of ransacking, looting and then burning a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore in March 2013.

Pakistani Christians gather outside the Joseph Colony in Lahore on 10 March 2013, the day after more than 100 of their homes were ransacked, looted and burned by a Muslim mob, following allegations a Christian had committed blasphemy.

The anti-terrorism judge, Chaudhry Muhammad Azam, acquitted them after prosecution witnesses failed to identify the suspects, while the prosecutor general said “the evidence was not enough to prove the crime”, but that the incident “brought [a] bad name to Pakistan”.

More than 100 houses were ransacked, looted and then burned on 9 March, 2013, in Lahore’s Joseph Colony.

Police said the rioting was first sparked by an argument between a Christian and a Muslim. Sawan Masih, a sweeper, had been chatting with his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran, when they began discussing religion.

The next day, Imran claimed Masih had spoken blasphemously against Islam’s prophet, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Press reports said a mosque aired the complaint from loudspeakers. Upwards of 2,000 men then converged on the Joseph Colony, where Masih lived, threatening to burn Christians in their homes unless they left. All the Christians fled.

Later that night, Masih was handed to the police. He has been in jail ever since and in March 2014 was sentenced to death for blasphemy and fined 200,000 rupees (around $2,000). He has appealed to Lahore’s High Court.

Ulterior motives are often suspected in blasphemy cases, with accusations used to settle personal scores or disputes over land. Following the attack on Joseph Colony, the Punjab government vowed to rebuild the community and provide land rights to the residents, but this has yet to happen.

The headmaster of a local school, Aster Bernard, recalled the fear that gripped the Christian community before the attack, fearing a repeat of the violence in Gojra (170km west of Lahore) in 2009, when more than 100 Christian homes were set on fire, also after an accusation of blasphemy.

“There was fear that a Gojra-type situation was going to take place, so women were shifted immediately,” recalled Bernard. “When I left, the police had arrived and there were so many attackers that we, with much difficulty, fled. By the next morning, at about 10.30am, we came to know that an attack had been unleashed on the colony.”

Following the attack, the Chief Minister of the Punjab, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, visited Joseph Colony and said that Christians had equal rights and should be protected by the state.

Local church leaders have expressed their disappointment following the court’s decision.

“This is quite upsetting,” Cecil Shane Chaudhry, executive director of the Catholic bishops’ justice and peace commission, told ucanews.com. “Basically, this means that, despite video footage, documents and pictures of thousands rampaging through Christian properties, the court has not found anyone guilty. So mobs are free to do whatever they want.

“Perhaps the police are not properly doing their job and rounding up the right people. Also, there is community-based pressure on the lower courts. If there was no substantial evidence, the court should also accept the bail of Sawan Masih.”

Samson Salamat, chairman of the Rawadari Tehreek (Movement for Tolerance) group, added: “We are worried. Once again history has repeated itself and we are denied justice. None of the culprits in anti-Christian attacks have been apprehended in the past. While this gives a negative message to persecuted religious minorities, it also encourages extremists.

“Perhaps the Church leadership should be more active in pursuing the court proceedings in such cases. Those who are directly affected usually settle their financial losses via back-channel diplomacy, which means there are no witnesses.”

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