3,000-strong mob looted, torched, and destroyed Saturday over 150 Christian homes, shops, and churches in a small colony in the Pakistan province of Punjab over blasphemy accusation against a Christian man.
According to Barnabas Aid, the Christians of Joseph Colony in Badami Bagh area of Lahore were warned by the police to evacuate the night before. They were calls from the Mosque loudspeakers that urged Muslims to “kill the blasphemers”.
In 2009, another similar tragedy struck the Christian communities in the town of Gojra, which like Badami Bagh is in Punjab. Masked gunmen went door-to-door setting fires to homes and churches. They poured chemicals over 45 homes and three churches before setting them ablaze.
Both times, the attack was sparked by rumors of blasphemy. Both times, the police failed to protect the Christian communities, or even stood aside. In Gojra, nine people were killed. This time, the attack included, it seems, complications of local steel-traders’ elections, but originated from a blasphemy accusation that started from a conversation between a Christian and a Muslim friend.
Kala Jee and other residents in the area were told to flee. “The police came and told us to go away,” he told Time. “A big, angry crowd had gathered on the main road. They had sticks and chains with them. We left and spent the next two nights with families that lived elsewhere.” The next day, the crowd returned to carry out their aggressions. On Sunday, the residents returned to survey the ruin.
In photographs taken during the assaults, group of teenage boys is seen attacking homes in the Christian colony. And some others, they pose defiantly for the camera, grinning while holding sticks, as flames blazes behind them.
A demonstrator burns a cross during a protest in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore March 9, 2013. (ADREES HASSAIN / REUTERS)
Pakistani men, part of an angry mob, throw bricks at a Christian house after setting it on fire, in Lahore, Pakistan, March 9, 2013.(K.M. CHAUDARY / AP)
According to Time, the local Christians said the attack sparked last Wednesday with a quarrel between two old friends. Sahwan Masih, a 26-year-old Christian who worked as a sanitation worker for the municipal authority, and his friend Imran, a Muslim known in the area as both Mohammed Imran and Shahid Imran, were sipping some hooch brewed locally. Their conversation turned toward each other’s religions.
“Imran called Sahwan a choora,” says Amir Gill, a pastor and local resident who says he witnessed the argument, according to Time. The word is a pejorative used to insult the Punjab’s Christian community. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province, most of the Christians are evangelical converts, formerly low-caste Hindus who were branded as “dirty” by Pakistani bigots. Members of this community are able to find work only as sanitation workers, menial jobs reserved for those at the bottom of the social ladder.
Gill, who works in a government department during the day and serves his evangelical local community in the evening, told the Time that he heard Masih saying something about “getting back at Imran and his Muslims.” Word of exchange seems to have traveled through the local area over the next couple of days. A friend of Imran was said to have waiting outside Masih’s home with a large dagger, demanding that he come out.
Police have taken Masih into “protective custody,” but, Time reports, few Christians accused of blasphemy ever manage to secure a release. With pressures from angry mobs, threats from local Muslim clerics, politicians and judges are paralyzed with fear. As a result, an individual can be charged with blasphemy on little or no evidence – punishable with a death penalty.
According to Time, Masih’s mother Zahida Parveen is seen wailing for the release of her son. “I want my son back, please bring my son back.”
The Punjab government has said that the Christian victims will receive compensation, but Barnabas Aid worries that this may meet only immediate needs and not cover all of their losses. The Virginia-based persecution watchdog is working with local partners on long-term plans to help the homeless Christian rebuild their lives.
In response of their latest tragedy, members of the Christian community blocked two main roads elsewhere in Lahore on Sunday. Earlier this year, Pakistan’s Shi’te population also took to the streets after three major attacks. According to Time, one banner reads: “Who Will Protect Us?” This year is one of the bloodiest year for Pakistan’s religious minorities.
A Pakistani Christian woman weeps after visiting her home which was damaged by an angry Muslim mob in Lahore, Pakistan, March 10, 2013.(K.M. CHAUDARY / AP)
Pakistani Christians chant slogans during a demonstration demanding the government to rebuild their homes after they were burned down following an alleged blasphemy incident in eastern Pakistan's Lahore, March 10, 2013.(JAMIL AHMED / ZUMAPRESS.COM)