Muslims in a town in Pakistan's Punjab Province who seized a church property have disrupted a prayer meeting at a private residence, sources said.
After police arranged a reconciliation meeting between the Muslims and members of the congregation in Sialkot District on Jan. 4, the Muslims instead armed themselves with guns and machetes and attacked the Christians' family members in their homes, said Bashir Masih, a Christian in Nawan Pind, Sadho Mahal, 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Lahore.
Masih said area Muslims have "made it almost impossible" for church members to worship even in their homes.
"We obtained written approval from the district police chief, Rai Ijaz, to hold a three-hour prayer meeting in the private courtyard of a Christian, Javed Masih, on Jan. 3, which was a Sunday," said Masih, adding that the police chief had also assigned two policemen to provide security at the venue.
When the congregation of about 30 Christians began worshipping, Rashid Jutt, a Muslim in his late 20s, arrived to disrupt the meeting, Masih said.
"The policemen assigned our security were late, therefore one of our boys, Gulshan, stepped forward to stop Jutt from harassing the congregation," he said. "The two soon started fighting, but we intervened and separated them. Jutt then left, vowing to 'teach all of us a lesson.'"
Masih said that later in the evening, Christian residents learned that Jutt had filed a report with police accusing Gulshan and five others of torturing him.
"We immediately reached the police station and told the inspector in-charge what had really happened," Masih said. "He said we could file a counter application against Jutt for disrupting the prayer meeting, but at the same time he advised us to let go of the matter and reconcile with the Muslim youth."
The police official offered to set up a meeting between both parties the next day, Jan. 4, at a property of the municipal chairman, Chaudhry Arshad.
Masih said that seven Christians went to the site at the scheduled time, but Jutt and his supporters did not show up.
"After waiting for some time, we returned to our homes," he said. "There we saw Jutt and some 30 other men armed with guns, machetes and batons storming through our houses and beating up our boys. We immediately telephoned the police emergency helpline, and a patrol vehicle arrived there after some time. The police rescued our boys from the attackers' clutches, but they did not arrest any of the Muslims."
Instead, police told the Christians to resolve the issue at a village council meeting (Panchayat).
Masih said that although none of the Christians were seriously injured, the area's 10 to 12 Christian families were shocked and fearful.
"We feel that the entire Muslim community has turned against us for standing up against their aggression," he said. "Even the local police are on the Muslims' side, as raids were being conducted to arrest Christian boys while no effort is being made to arrest Jutt and his accomplices, whom we have named in our police complaint for attacking our homes and beating up our boys."
Noting that this was not the first time area Christians have been persecuted for their faith, he said young Muslim men gang-raped a Christian girl about four months ago. The suspects escaped arrest by forcing the victim's impoverished family to withdraw the case, he said.
The church lost its worship venue two years ago area when the area Muslims put a lock on the 25-year-old building, claiming that they had bought the land on which it was built. Though they showed no ownership documents, the Muslims prohibited the Christians from entering the church building, Masih said.
"We are poor people, and most of us are employed as cattle herders or at factories, so we are not in a position to fight a legal battle for our church," he said. "But now it seems that the Muslims just want us to renounce our faith, as they have been forcibly stopping our prayer gatherings."
Though he has little faith in the local police, Masih said Christians have met with the local police chief, Ijaz, about the attacks.
"Now a Punchayat headed by a deputy superintendent of police, Mian Moazzam, will take up the matter on Sunday [Jan 17]," he said. "We will demand our right to worship and to practice our faith freely in that meeting. The Muslims cannot deprive us of our basic right to worship, and they also cannot take away our church just like that."
Sialkot District Police Officer Ijaz said that he has assigned officials to resolve the issue.
"We will not allow anyone to force their beliefs on any other person," he said. "The police will protect the Christians of Nawan Pind, and no harm will come their way. They are free to practice their faith, and we will ensure their security."
Ijaz said that he would also investigate the Muslims' appropriation of the church building.
"I will ask my officers to investigate the matter," he said. "We will ensure that justice is served on merit."