Armed violence broke out in eastern Pakistan on Sunday, 18 March, over an Easter banner hung outside a church.
The incident took place in a Christian colony in Burewala, Punjab province. Police intervened and arrested three Muslim suspects, while seven injured Christians were taken to a local hospital.
The church’s pastor took the matter to the local police, where he filed a First Information Report, which stated: “Today at about 1pm I was conducting a worship service when [a group of men, including a government official], equipped with firearms, barged into the church. As soon as they entered, [two of them] forcibly took down gospel verses written on banners, while shouting abusive words, tore them into pieces and then denigrated them by throwing them down.”
The FIR also stated that Christians inside the church were injured by being hit with sticks and pistol butts.
News spread quickly via social media that armed Muslims had attacked a church and injured the pastor and four church elders. But Pakistan’s Daily Express reported that two Christian groups had been “fighting for supremacy”.
Church member Iftikhar Bhatti, who is also a local councillor, told World Watch Monitor the clash related to the banner.
“Hanging on the front of the church was a Christmas banner,” he said. “Some of our church members went to replace it with an Easter banner, but they were stopped by Muhammad Sharif, a Muslim living in the area.
“Then the pastor went along to help attach the banner to the wall, but Sharif and his sons tore it down and trampled on it. The church service had ended by then and as church members started leaving they also got caught up in the clash.”
The Daily Express said the banner had a picture of Muhammad Sharif, who is a local government official. The argument began after that banner was torn down. Fighting broke out and shots were fired into the air, according to the Daily Express.
“Why would Muhammad Sharif stop us from putting a banner on a Christian building? We resisted and then a fight broke out,” said Bhatti.
The Assistant Superintendent of Police, Tahir Majeed, told World Watch Monitor the matter arose between two Christian groups and then the Muslim family also got involved. “When the FIR was lodged [by a Christian] it did not mention the conflict between two Christians groups,” Majeed said. He added that the confusion meant some people who read the FIR only saw the incident as an attack by Muslims on a church service, whereas others also saw the clash between two Christian groups.