Violence against Christians in Pakistan

Abuses of the blasphemy law

Joaquim Magalhães de Castro

Ten months after the wave of violence that destroyed the Christian neighborhood of Jaranwala, a city in the Pakistani province of Punjab, a certain level of hostility persists in the area, materialized mainly in the lack of attendance at classes by Christian children, who are ridiculed or excluded by teachers and classmates and that is why they are afraid or do not want to go to school.

On August 16, 2023, the Christian community of Jaranwala was violently attacked by radical Muslims. More than 25 churches and hundreds of homes were looted and burned, leaving hundreds of families traumatized and homeless.

“People lost everything they owned, many also lost hope, confidence and their dreams were destroyed forever due to an alleged accusation of blasphemy that has not yet been proven,” said Michelle Chaudhry, president of the ‘The Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation’ (CICF), an organization involved in social projects for the benefit of marginalized Christian communities in Pakistan. To help these people, the foundation remains committed to supporting and rehabilitating victims. Thanks to the donations received, a multi-stage process was started: initially with the provision of accommodation, hot meals, drinking water and personal hygiene items.

The second phase, currently underway, involves the reconstruction of destroyed houses. Furthermore, the Cecil & Iris Chaudhry Foundation (CICF) has set up a medical center in Jaranwala for children suffering from skin diseases, offering them treatment and medicines there. Efforts were also made to alleviate the psychological stress of young people through playful initiatives, especially during Christmas and Easter.

“We cover the school costs (tuition fees, books, stationery, accommodation and food) for 25 children at a Catholic boarding school in a nearby town and we are ready to take in more children if necessary,” said Michelle Chaudhry. The objective is “to support these families so that they can reintegrate into society, even if they feel abandoned and betrayed by the State, which has not protected them even though it is its duty to guarantee the protection of all citizens, regardless of their beliefs,” notes the president of CICF.

Meanwhile, attacks on Christians continue. In Sargodha, a city in Punjab, on May 25, some residents found burned pages of the Quran next to Christian homes. Soon a crowd armed with sticks and stones gathered in front of the house of one of Christian man – named Nazir Masih, owner of a small shoe factory – accusing him of “blasphemy” for allegedly burning the Quran while throwing out the trash. Some inhabitants, Christians and Muslims, fearing an outbreak of violence, immediately called the local police and representatives of the Sargodha “Peace Committee”, made up of Christian and Muslim religious leaders, made an attempt to calm the crowd of around 300 people.

It was in vain; the situation got worse: some of the ‘enraged’ set fire to the shoe factory, others broke into Nazir Masih’s house, setting it on fire. Thanks to the quick and courageous intervention of the police, Nazir managed to save his life, although he was seriously injured. Security forces then used tear gas to disperse the crowd, and, in the process, arrested dozens of people, and subsequently filed charges against a total of 44 men, accused of attempted murder, obstruction and assault on public officials, terrorist acts and lynching. Nazir Masih, 70, is now in a critical condition in a Sargodha hospital. According to his lawyers, it was some neighbors – with whom he had disagreements in the past – who accused him and triggered the attack.

“This is yet another case of abuse of the blasphemy law. It is urgent to take measures to prevent it from being used for anything and everything,” said Catholic lawyer Khalil Tahir Sindhu, minister of human rights in the province of Punjab.

A delegation from the Pakistan Bishops’ Justice and Peace Commission, led by Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, along with Minister Sindhu, went to the scene and expressed solidarity with the Christians of Sargodha, but the community remains scared. Condemning the violence and recalling last year’s riots in Jaranwala, the commission noted that “it is essential that all allegations of blasphemy are thoroughly investigated and that the accused person is given a fair opportunity to face justice in accordance with the law. Under no circumstances should the popular masses be free to take the law into their own hands.”

The commission also reaffirms its commitment to “promote dialogue to combat intolerance”. Meanwhile, following the incident, the Archbishop of Lahore, Sebastian Shaw, also reiterated the need for protection and security of all churches in Sargodha district. This appeal was also joined by Abdul Khair Azad, imam of the main mosque in Lahore, and several members of the civil authorities.