By K.M. Seethi
Pakistan has once again experienced distressing episodes of violence aimed at its Christian minority, all emerging from allegations of blasphemy. These incidents shed light on a glaring failure of the state machinery to protect marginalized and minority groups.
The events of August 16 witnessed a large mob unleashing chaos in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, resulting in the destruction of nearly 22 churches and the targeted assault on numerous Christian households. The root cause of this outbreak was accusations of blasphemy, triggered by the discovery of desecrated Quran pages near the residence of two Christian brothers.
Amidst spreading rumours, the situation took a dangerous turn with the involvement of Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) members, who further exacerbated tensions through their public statements. The mob’s focus shifted to the residence of the accused Christians and it became the target of arson. This act served as a trigger for a chain of violent events. Following this initial incident, the mob’s aggression extended to churches. The wave of violence didn’t stop there. The Christian community’s nearby homes were singled out, leading to their destruction by fire. Social media platforms captured these unsettling moments through images and videos, providing a stark depiction of the flames engulfing these structures.
The mob’s actions also extended to targeting the office of Jaranwala Assistant Commissioner, Shaukat Masih, and they disrupted a major motorway interchange as part of their protest. Leaders from the Christian community expressed condemnation for the perceived inaction of the police during the attacks, highlighting that law enforcement personnel remained passive while families sought help. Archbishop Benny Travas of Karachi expressed shock and disbelief at the violence, highlighting that Pakistan belongs to all its citizens. The country’s Catholic bishops demanded justice and respect for minorities, urging a thorough investigation into the incident. Archbishop Travas emphasized that the accusations were yet to be proven and asserted that his community would not disrespect any religion. He lamented that despite Christian loyalty to Pakistan, incidents like these reflect their ‘second-class citizen’ status. He criticized politicians’ empty promises of justice and solidarity and called for substantial government action against the perpetrators. He also requested a comprehensive investigation into the Quran desecration, citing hidden motives behind similar past allegations.
In response to the escalating situation, Punjab’s Chief Secretary and the Inspector General of Police took charge and engaged in discussions with the protest leaders to restore order. In order to stabilize the situation, the Rangers were deployed, and additional police personnel were dispatched to the area, as per reports. Amid the turmoil, the authorities registered a First Information Report (FIR) against the two Christian individuals implicated in the blasphemy allegations. The incident sparked widespread criticism, with many pointing out what they saw as discriminatory behavior on the part of the police in handling the crisis. Later police arrested more than 128 people in connection with the violence.
In less than a week after the violence, the Punjab government has taken action. Reports say that they have already restored two of the damaged churches and are committed to restoring the rest of the Christian worship places. This practical step aims to show solidarity with the minority community in the province. In addition, the provincial caretaker government has announced compensation of Rs 2 million for each affected family. Punjab Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi visited the vandalized churches in Jaranwala Tehsil of Faisalabad district. The information minister mentioned that 94 Christian families, who had to flee their homes due to the threat of mob violence, will receive cash grants. Naqvi emphasized that the construction and restoration work on two churches in Jaranwala was completed within a remarkable 72-hour period. Similar efforts on the other churches are also underway and expected to conclude soon. Naqvi’s primary intention is to empathize with the Christian community’s sorrow, assuring that their commitment to deliver justice to the affected individuals will be upheld.
In Pakistan, the importance of evidence often diminishes when the focus turns to accusations of blasphemy, leading the way for acts of vigilantism. The latest incident serves as the second recent occurrence of such nature. Not long ago, an English teacher in Balochistan lost his life after being accused of blasphemy. Similarly, in February 2022, the brutal murder of priest William Siraj in Peshawar triggered fear and outrage among the country’s minority communities.
The escalating aggression against Pakistan’s minorities has been exacerbated by the resurgence of terrorist activities within the nation. This resurgence has been notably amplified by the Taliban’s assumption of power in Kabul in 2021. Over time, terrorist attacks in Pakistan have escalated in severity, with a significant shift occurring after the Pakistani Taliban (Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan-TTP) decided to end a ceasefire with the government in Islamabad in 2021. The TTP’s confidence has unmistakably been bolstered by the Taliban’s control over Afghanistan, granting them the opportunity to unleash new waves of violence against minority groups in Pakistan.
Once making up around 15% of major city populations, the representation of minorities in Pakistan has sharply declined to less than 4% today. Among these minority groups, Christians form a relatively small portion within this predominantly Sunni Muslim nation. Unfortunately, accusations of blasphemy have resulted in both legal rulings and acts of violence directed towards these minority communities, including Christians.
A striking example is the case of Asif Pervaiz, a young Christian, who in September 2020 was sentenced to death by a Lahore court for allegedly sending ‘blasphemous content’ via text messages. Pervaiz had already endured nearly seven years of imprisonment while facing blasphemy charges. Historically, instances have emerged where minority groups like Ahmadis, Shias, and Christians have been accused of blasphemy. The case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman, gained widespread recognition in this context.
Numerous reports have underscored the systemic shortcomings of Pakistani courts in ensuring adequate protection and delivering just outcomes to victims. Regarding the blasphemy regulations, a USCIRF (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom) Report, for example, highlighted how the enforcement of these laws has positioned Pakistan as a prominent perpetrator of blasphemy-related prosecutions and communal hostilities on a global scale. The report further noted that Sections 295 and 298 of Pakistan’s Penal Code categorize actions and expressions that insult religion or desecrate the Qur’an, Prophet Muhammad, places of worship, or religious symbols as criminal offenses.
These vague provisions are often exploited to unjustly target individuals from minority groups, including Ahmadis, Shia Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, and those whose beliefs differ from the prevailing Sunni interpretation of Islam. The inherent ambiguity of these clauses has enabled their misuse, contributing to an environment where accusations of blasphemy can be weaponized for various purposes.
Amnesty International said: “Pakistani authorities need no more evidence to see how dangerous the blasphemy laws are. The broad, vague and coercive nature of the blasphemy laws violate the human rights to freedom of thought, conscience and religion and freedom of expression. They have long been misused to target some of the most marginalized people in society. It further noted: “The blasphemy laws should be repealed as a matter of urgency and in the meantime, the authorities should put in place effective safeguards against their abuse. By ignoring the longstanding call to repeal the blasphemy laws and instead strengthen them by attempting to increase the punishment under such laws, Pakistani authorities continue to create a permissive environment for human rights violations.”
Siegfried O. Wolf, Director of Research at the South Asia Democratic Forum (SADF), emphasizes that religious minorities, including Christians, face significant discrimination in several Muslim-majority countries. However, he points out that Pakistan stands out as a unique case where Christians endure systematic and institutionalized persecution and victimization like no other nation. A study conducted in 2022 by the Centre for Research & Security Studies underscores this issue. The study reveals that between the years 1947 and 2021, there were 89 instances where individuals were attacked and killed based on allegations of blasphemy, and during the same period, there were approximately 1,500 accusations and related cases. Disturbingly, over 70 percent of these cases were reported in the Punjab region. This data underscores the urgent need to address the misuse of blasphemy accusations and the importance of promoting tolerance and understanding among different religious communities.
The 2022 Annual Report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) casts a dismal picture on the prevailing political, economic, and societal conditions within the nation. This year has also witnessed a disturbing resurgence in acts of terror, resulting in the loss of 533 lives—an unfortunate peak within the span of five years. Despite forewarnings from citizens regarding the impending nature of these developments, the government’s response to counteract militancy has remained ineffective. Concurrently, incidents of enforced disappearances have seen an increase, particularly in Balochistan, where 2,210 reported cases persist without resolution. The escalating threats encroaching upon freedom of religion or belief have remained an issue of great significance. Instances of mob lynching have seemingly surged, and the Ahmadiyya community finds itself under pronounced jeopardy, as numerous places of worship and over 90 graves have been subjected to desecration. Notably, police records confirm the registration of 35 blasphemy cases across Pakistan. CSJ indicates that a staggering 171 individuals faced accusations under the blasphemy laws, with a majority—65 percent—of these cases occurring in Punjab.
HRCP noted in its report that “it was a year of political unrest and instability, exposing the fragile moorings of our democratic system like never before. The legislature and executive struggled with a crisis of credibility, and the judicial overreach, instead of solving the ensuing constitutional and political crises, only made matters worse. Draconian colonial-era laws continued to be used, as generously as before, against political opponents throughout the year. Moreover, people’s rights to privacy and dignity were violated in the form of audio and video leaks, with no one taking the necessary steps to fix responsibility for undertaking this illegal invasion of privacy and seeking accountability from those found responsible for such acts.”
Pakistan also witnessed backlashes when reports of blasphemy from other countries also came. For instance, in July, the Lahore-based Sunni extremist group, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) declared its intention to launch attacks on Christians and churches within Pakistan as a reprisal for the Quran burning incident in Sweden. The group also announced plans to carry out suicide bombings against Pakistan’s Christian minority. LeJ stated its intention to collaborate with similar extremist organizations in the region to carry out these attacks against the Christian community, seeking vengeance for the Quran incident that occurred in Sweden during Eid. Naseer Raisani, the spokesperson for LeJ, issued a statement warning that no Church or Christian entity in Pakistan would be spared from their threats. Curiously, there has been no official response from the Pakistani government or its agencies regarding the potential threat posed by these terror organizations to the minority community.
LeJ is notorious for its violent campaigns against Shia Muslims in Pakistan, dating back to the 1990s. The group has been responsible for brutal attacks on public places such as mosques and Shia processions, as well as targeted assassinations of prominent Shia figures. This threat towards Christians and churches further highlights the group’s extremist ideology and willingness to employ violence to achieve its objectives.
Following threats made by a banned Islamist group in response to the Quran burning incident in Stockholm, Catholic Church leaders in Pakistan sought protection from authorities. The incident triggered protests in multiple countries. Father Khalid Rashid Asi, who serves as the Faisalabad diocesan director of the Commission for Interfaith Dialogue and Ecumenism, engaged with police officials in the Madina Town district, which is home to around 4,000 Christians. Father Asi took the initiative to ensure the safety of the community. He directed all priests in the diocese to establish contact with their respective police stations to arrange security measures for their parishes, convents, schools, and other facilities. This effort aims to preemptively safeguard the community from potential threats. The concerns are rooted in past events. The memory of the 2009 anti-Christian violence in Punjab province, during which supporters of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi attacked Christian homes, resulting in the deaths of 10 Catholics, is still vivid. These attacks followed allegations of Quran desecration. The historical context underscores the gravity of the current situation and the need to take proactive steps to protect the Christian community from harm.
A palpable silence has permeated the corridors of power as blasphemy laws are exploited for settling personal disputes, acquiring property, and instilling fear among minority groups. Given this context, can anyone genuinely be surprised when incidents akin to the Jaranwala tragedy recur? Utilizing violence in the name of religion is indefensible in any context, yet in Pakistan, the manipulation of blasphemy laws has transformed into a tool for advancing vested interests, as observed in a Dawn editorial.
In any circumstance, the real test of Pakistan as a democratic state lies in its ability to protect the rights of even its smallest minority groups. The nation is at a critical juncture, facing the challenge of upholding its nascent democratic framework against the backdrop of a deep state presence, a multifaceted civil society, and a powerful state apparatus. Already torn by severe economic crisis and internal political crisis, Pakistan is indeed on the threshold of a social breakdown. This calls for extreme vigilance and steadfast action to ensure the preservation of democratic values amidst the intricate socio-political dynamics.