Christians have been subject to attacks in Sheikhupura before
Christians have been subject to attacks in Sheikhupura before. (Photo: Flickr / Sheikhu)

A Pakistani family seeks justice almost two months after their 22-year-old son was falsely accused of abducting a 19-year-old woman, which led in turn to the looting and ransacking of Christians’ houses.

Early on 9 July, Nabeela Bibi of Rahimabad village, Sheikhupura, went missing; her father, Muhammad Hanif, said he suspected she’d eloped with her next-door neighbour, 22-year-old Christian Waheed Masih.

“All the Muslim residents flared up and shouted at us, saying they would burn our houses and cut us into pieces,” Waheed’s brother, Nasir, told World Watch Monitor.

The village has only ten Christian families: most of them are bonded laborers in brick kilns; others work as janitors in different cities. So most of their men had already left when the incident took place.

The Christians assured everyone that they had no idea where Nabeela had gone, but no-one believed them and the situation grew more and more tense, World Watch Monitor was told.

“The mob took my mother and beat her publicly,” Nasir said. “Someone alerted the police, who rescued her from the mob but then took her into custody to pressure us to produce Waheed at the police station. I eventually brought Waheed back, early on 10 July, and presented him before the Muslims of the area.”

In the family’s application to the Punjab Chief Minister and Secretary, and Supreme Court, Nasir stated that “the imam announced more than once on the loudspeaker that all Muslims should gather at the centre of the village, and ‘Don’t let even a single Christian live in the village.’ Following this, a large number of Muslims gathered and then attacked the houses of the Christians.”

Nasir stated that at least ten men entered their house, broke open trunks and cupboards and stole gold ornaments worth roughly US $1,000, household goods worth $2,500, and around $300 in cash.

The women and children had to run for safety when the looting and ransacking started.

Nasir says that an announcement at about 11pm from the mosque loudspeaker demanded that everyone gather, after which Christians started fleeing the village – except Waheed’s 80-year-old grandmother Traizan Bibi – who later witnessed that the attackers were led by Nabeela’s cousin, Muhammad Shahbaz.

“The next morning, a similar announcement was made from the mosque at which a local landlord, Muhammad Aslam, reprimanded the imam, asking him if he desired bloodshed,” Nasir added.

It is yet not clear if the imam himself, Muhammad Rizwan Ghafoor, 28, made the announcements, or someone else. The Christians say they think an unwilling Ghafoor was pressured by Nabeela’s relatives.

The Safdarabad police registered a criminal case against Waheed of the abduction of Nabeela, with the help of his mother and brother Naveed.

On 13 July, Nabeela appeared in the magistrate’s court and requested to record a statement in which she submitted that she had run away to marry Muhammad Nazir Kashif – of her own freewill – on 4 July and had gone to live with him. At this, the police released Waheed and his mother.

But the police have not yet filed charges against the theft, ransacking and incitement to hate from the mosque loudspeaker – a crime under the Punjab Loudspeaker Act 2015.

On 23 July Nabeela then filed for dissolution of marriage with Kashif, claiming marital cruelty.

Despite this, on 3 August, she then filed an appeal to the Safdarabad police, and in court, that she was in fact abducted by Waheed and his brother Naveed, alleging that she was repeatedly raped by Waheed and his Muslim friend Muhammad Ishtiaq, but had managed to escape on 1 August.

“These new charges are being used to pressurise Christians to withdraw their application seeking legal action against misuse of the mosque loudspeaker, and the theft and ransacking of our houses,” Nasir said.

Superintendent of Police Asad-ur-Rehman told World Watch Monitor that the investigation is ongoing, delayed by Eid al-Adha, and that their report will be on merit. “Nabeela has changed her statement so we are asking what statement she’s sticking to,” he said. “Also, there was one part of our investigation missing. This will be concluded in a few days; then we will be better able to explain what exactly happened and who is guilty of creating this fuss.”

How did all this begin?

Nasir explained: “In early December, Nabeela and Nazir Kashif met when both of them laboured to pull up carrots in the fields. Kashif is from a nearby village, Bohru, and, after the relationship developed, he started coming into our street, and used to stand outside for hours. We complained to Nabeela’s family, after which Nabeela threatened Waheed that he would face consequences for this.

“A day before she eloped, we met the village chief, Muhammad Akbar, to explain that Kashif shouldn’t be allowed to stay because it gives a wrong impression to other young girls. Next morning, Waheed went to nearby fields to work. When people expressed their suspicions, I brought Waheed back and presented him. We tried our best but they did not believe us. Because it was getting worse, we slowly left the village, especially after hearing the announcement from the mosque loudspeaker.”

Legal battle goes on under fear of more reprisals

The Christians have lost most of their possessions in the ransacking and looting. “The Muslims … were even pushing us to leave the village and to transfer the ownership of our two houses to them,” Nasir said.

Fear still prevails in the village; most of the Christians are unwilling to discuss this incident. Only elderly Christian women and men have returned to their homes, while the young women have not yet been brought back for fear of reprisals.

Waheed’s father, Rafique, 65, and brothers Shafiq, 35, Nasir, 32, Dildar, 28, and Naveed, 25, who are all bonded* brick kiln workers, have had to borrow about $2,000 from their employers for their legal case. “We had no choice except to buy justice or we would have been killed,” Nasir said.

*Under the atharhi/seipi system, Pakistani Christians, historically forced into degrading occupations and often uneducated, are forced into bonded labour by advance loans. These loans are used to keep them as bonded labourers because they never earn sufficient sums to pay off this debt.