By Peter Pinedo
Just four days after a mob of Islamist extremists burned down a Christian community in the Pakistani city of Jaranwala, over 700 Catholics gathered to celebrate Mass outside the decimated St. Paul Catholic Church on Aug. 20.
Despite the incredible devastation and widespread fears that another anti-Christian riot would break out, hundreds of Catholics turned to the Eucharist following a mob attack that destroyed more than 30 churches and 800 homes.
“Most of the people were crying in the Mass,” one Christian community leader told the Catholic relief group Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN).
“It was a very painful time but a chance to share with one another their sense of loss and sadness,” said the Christian, who was not identified by ACN out of safety concerns.
On Aug. 16, a riot of hundreds of Muslims — reported by some as thousands — broke out in the Christian portion of Jaranwala in Pakistan’s northeastern Punjab province.
The anti-Christian mob had broken into a frenzy after two Christians, Rocky Masih and Raja Masih, were accused of profaning the Quran and insulting Islam. Disrespecting the Quran is a crime punishable by life in prison in Pakistan.
Before a formal police investigation could begin, a crowd of Muslims, reportedly spurred on by an extremist group called “Tehreek-e-Labbaik” went on a rampage through the Christian district.
Maria Lozano, head of press for ACN, told CNA that witnesses reported “messages from mosques sent out on loudspeakers were calling on local people to ‘go out and kill’ Christians.”
After receiving a forewarning from some sympathetic Muslims, most of the Christians were able to quickly flee their homes and churches in time to avoid a massacre. Despite the destruction, no Christians have been reported killed, according to Lozano.
One Christian, identified as Ejaz Masih, died of a heart attack during the attack.
Dramatic video and pictures of the attack show Muslim rioters toppling crosses and setting fire to churches and Christian homes.
ACN reported that nearly 1,000 terrified Christians spent several nights hiding in nearby sugar cane fields and wilderness.
The unnamed ACN source said that eventually “some of them went back to their homes desperate for something to eat but when they got home, they found everything destroyed — nothing to sit on, nothing to drink out of, not even a lightbulb.”
One priest, Father Khalid Mukhtar, told ACN that he was attacked but managed to hide in his parish residence for hours until the rioters had passed. He also said that he called the police for help, but they never came.
Though police were present on the scene they were unable to contain or stop the riot from sweeping through the entire Christian district.
Why did the mobs attack?
The riot broke out after an unverified report went out that two Christians had ripped up a Quran and written offensive messages in it.
Without waiting to verify the truth of the story, angry crowds began gathering around the Christian quarter of the city and eventually broke out into a full riot.
The plight of Christians in Pakistan has been growing increasingly difficult in recent years.
The U.S. State Department has designated Pakistan a “country of particular concern” because of its blatant disregard for human rights, most especially the religious rights of minorities.
The country has passed a string of increasingly stringent “blasphemy laws,” which punish offenders with either jail time, life in prison, or death. Besides threatening religious minorities with punishment from the country’s judiciary, many experts believe that the blasphemy laws are used to inflict extrajudicial punishment as well.
After the passage of additional blasphemy laws in August, Mervyn Thomas, president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), warned that there is “overwhelming evidence of how the existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations.”
Given the unverified nature of the accusations, Kiri Kandhwende, a representative for CSW, told CNA that the latest riots “may be a case of blasphemy laws being used to settle personal scores.”
Who is responsible for the attacks?
According to CSW, “Tehreek-e-Labbaik” (TLP), an extremist Islamic political party known for violence, was responsible for the riot. The group advocates for the installation of Sharia law in Pakistan.
Reports shared by both ACN and CSW said that Islamic religious leaders also spurred on the attacks by calling for crowds to “go out and kill Christians” on mosque loudspeakers.
What happened to the Christian victims?
After the dust and ash settled from the riots, a total of 3,000 families, or approximately 12,000 to 15,000 people, were affected, according to CSW.
After returning to their communities, the Christians in Jaranwala found empty shells of their former homes. Their possessions were looted and damage to their infrastructure left many without electricity or water.
ACN’s source said there was “nothing left” and that “in the churches they have attacked, everything is destroyed,” including the altar and statues.
“What they did to the statues of Jesus and Mary I cannot begin to describe,” the source said.
Thirty-six churches were desecrated and approximately 3,000 Christian families lost their homes and all their possessions, according to CSW.
How did the Christians respond?
Amid all this, the Christians in Jaranwala have responded to the crisis with incredible bravery.
According to the eyewitness source interviewed by ACN, some Muslims were angry that the Christians held a Mass so soon after the riot.
“When we went in, some local Muslims stared wide-eyed,” the witness said. “They had angry faces and began cursing us and using abusive language.”
The Mass was celebrated by Bishop Indrias Rehmat of the Diocese of Faisalabad. Despite the presence of 30 police officers, many feared authorities would once again fail to hold back an angry crowd.
Kandhwende told CNA that Catholic clergy have been on the ground “since Day One,” giving “relief and comfort to those who need it.”
On Aug. 19, pictures and videos circulated on social media of Dominican nuns visiting with the Christian community and comforting them.
Catholic relief group Caritas Pakistan, a branch of Caritas International, was also on the ground giving aid to the victims by offering food and supplies while priests from the group provided spiritual comfort.
In a statement published on the website for “Catholics in Pakistan,” Islamabad Archbishop Joseph Arshad, president of the Pakistani Catholic Bishops’ Conference, said he has “appealed to the Punjab [provincial] government to take immediate and strict legal action against the attackers.”
Arshad called for the “strict punishment of the attacking groups” and said that “such incidents pave the way for insecurity for the minorities living in the country of Pakistan due to which our places of worship and people are not safe in any way.”
Archbishop Benny Travas of Karachi, Pakistan, said that though “we as a Christian community have time and again displayed our fidelity to the nation of Pakistan,” incidents such as the attack in Jaranwala “show that we are in reality second-class citizens to be terrorized and frightened at will.”
Across the country, Christians gathered to protest the violence, the BBC reported.
In the U.S., U.K., and Canada, Pakistani Christians rallied in support of the persecuted Christians in their homeland.
How did the government respond?
Local authorities were quick to express solidarity with the Christian community in Jaranwala and to condemn the attackers.
According to ACN, local police reported making 700 hundred arrests related to the riots. However, it is uncertain whether the government will take any further action to punish the rioters.
The accused Christians, Rocky Masih and Raja Masih, have also been arrested and charged with blasphemy. According to CSW, the accuser is a police officer named Mansoor Sadiq.
The Pakistani government has given nearly 100 Christian families $6,800 in compensation, according to the AP.
Both the interim prime minister of Pakistan, Anwaar ul Haq Kakar, and Punjab Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi visited the Christian community in Jaranwala and condemned the attacks.
Kakar said that he was “gutted by the visuals coming out of Jaranwala” and that “stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities.”
Naqvi promised that the government would restore all affected churches and homes within a few days.
Naqvi called the rioters “conspirators” intent on “disrupting our nation’s unity.”
“As Pakistanis, we all condemn the incident that took place in Jaranwala. We assure you that the conspirators and perpetrators will see the wrath of law very soon,” Naqvi said. “Let it be known to all conspirators that their efforts are destined to fail; we stand united, true to our Quaid’s [founder’s] vision.”
Despite government promises, some Christians are not so optimistic that justice will be served.
“Once again,” Travas said, “we have the same old condemnations and visits by the politicians and other government officials expressing their solidarity with the Christian community and that ‘justice will be done’ but in reality nothing materializes and all is forgotten.”