By Kashif Nawab
A delegation facilitated by the Association of Pakistani Christians had a meeting with diplomats including Vice Ambassador Mr. Masood Gul and commercial counselor Mr. Khalid Hanif at the Embassy of Pakistan in Rome. The delegation comprising Pastor Justin Bhatti, Joseph Jansen, Ayyaz Gulzar, Mirjam Bos, and Pervaiz raised their concerns over the multiple attacks on the Christian settlements on the pretext of blasphemy accusations, and urged the Pakistani authorities to bring those responsible for the Jaranwala attack to justice and hold accountable for their actions, and grant financial assistance to affected families to compensate their losses, and rebuild the Christian neighbourhoods damaged in Jaranwala. They called upon the authorities to allow dozens of those accused of blasphemy behind bars like Anwar Kenneth and Shagufta Kiran to exercise their right to a fair trial.
Meanwhile, Pakistani diaspora belonging to the Christian community staged a protest demonstration in Rome to show solidarity with Christian victims of mob violence that occurred on 16 August 2023 in Jaranwala, Faisalabad district of Pakistan where thousands of men gathered in the town and proceeded to attack Christian churches and homes following the subsequent calls for action by Muslims from mosque loudspeakers.
In a series of brutal mob-led attacks against the Christian community on the pretext of fabricated blasphemy accusations of ripping pages out of a Quran made against two Christians, 24 churches were vandalized, hundreds of Holy Bibles were desecrated and over 80 homes were looted and torched. The protest demonstration was marked by speeches, placards, and chants demanding justice for victims of the Jaranwala attack on Christians, and calling for reforms in the Pakistani legal system to address the growing concerns over the targeting of religious minorities and dissenting voices.
The protesters expressed grave concerns over the mob violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, and demanded that the blasphemy laws be amended to introduce impregnable and effective safeguards so that they are not misused against religious minorities, and urged authorities to ensure that the accused of blasphemy are not tried under the anti-terrorism act, and receive a fair trial. Additionally, policies and strategies to deal with organized extremist groups should be devised, especially with regard to the enforcement of law and order, so that such groups are neither able nor allowed to undermine the writ of the state.
Speaking at the protest, Joseph Jansen, advocacy officer at Jubilee Campaign said that we appreciate the solidarity visits made by Justice Qazi Faiz Issa, Prime Minister and Chief Minister of Pakistan to the Christian community in Jaranwala, however, the persecuted Christians are expecting justice in the incidence of violence the religious minorities have been facing. The authorities in Pakistan have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for intimidation, threats, and violent acts against religious minorities. …. The Pakistan government’s indifference to the abuses under the blasphemy law and the violence it provokes is discriminatory and violates the rights to fundamental freedoms. The authorities’ failure to hold those responsible for violence against religious minorities to account only encourages extremists and reinforces fear and insecurity among all religious minorities.
Pastor Justin Bhatti said that every person should have the right to religious freedom without fear of persecution, and nobody should be persecuted for living out their faith. The repressive blasphemy laws create a climate of hostility against religious minorities, and fertile ground for radicals to wreak havoc against those whom they perceive as blasphemers. Pakistan must take measures to detect and counter acts of incitement to hatred, discrimination, and violence against individuals and groups. Pervaiz said that Jaranwala attack underscores the failings of Pakistan’s police to adequately protect religious minority communities and respond promptly to violence targeting them. The lack of prosecutions of those responsible for such crimes in the past emboldens those who commit violence in the name of religion.
Ayyaz Gulzar said that we appreciate that the EU is committed to providing emergency humanitarian assistance to support Christians affected by the Jaranwala incident. The EU must urge Pakistani authorities to ensure the safety of those accused of blasphemy, and ensure that the accused have access to legal representation for a fair trial. Moreover, Pakistan must take measures to implement the recommendations of the judicial inquiry held after the communal riots in Gojra in 2009 so that there is no impunity for organized Muslim religious groups that openly declare their intentions of violent action against religious minorities. The government must also take stern action against any instances of hate speech against any community. Furthermore, Pakistani authorities must cease their support for the extremist group, Tehreek-e-Labbaik, which enjoys immunity for its illegal actions.
Mirjam Bos said that religion should never be invoked as a justification for targeting persons belonging to minorities. The correlation between blasphemy laws and mob violence plague and threaten the lives of religious minorities. The scale and severity of the attacks against minorities in Pakistan is unconscionable. Pakistani authorities must take sincere actions to protect Christians at risk, quell the violence, and bring the perpetrators of acts of religious persecution to justice. Moreover, the directive of the 2014 Supreme Court judgment calling for a separate police force to be created to protect religious minorities’ places of worship must be implemented urgently, and the financial and human resources needed to do this made available without any further delay.