Religious Violence Escalates in Pakistan as Churches Burned and Christians Targeted

In a tragic turn of events, more than 100 people have been arrested in the city of Jaranwala, Pakistan, after churches were burned down and homes were vandalized by a large group of Muslims. The violence erupted following claims that two Christian men had torn pages from the Quran. This incident has once again highlighted the sensitive issue of blasphemy in Pakistan, where even an accusation can lead to deadly consequences.

The riot in Jaranwala has left the historic Salvation Army Church in ruins, with the remains being cordoned off with barbed wire due to the prevailing tension. As a precautionary measure, public gatherings have been restricted for the next seven days in Faisalabad district, which encompasses Jaranwala. Shockingly, despite the fact that the two men accused of damaging the Quran have been charged with blasphemy, they have not been apprehended yet. Blasphemy is a grave offense in Pakistan, carrying a punishment of death.

While Pakistan has not executed anyone for blasphemy, mere accusations have proven to be catalysts for widespread violence, including lynchings and killings. In 2014, a Sri Lankan man accused of blasphemy was brutally murdered by a mob and his body was set on fire. Similarly, in 2009, a mob attacked and burned down around 60 homes, ultimately claiming six lives, in the Gorja district of Punjab. It is important to note that Pakistan inherited the blasphemy law from the British during the 19th century, and in the 1980s, Islamabad introduced even stricter penalties, including the death sentence for insulting Islam.

The rise in religion-fueled violence in Pakistan can be attributed to the imposition of capital punishment for blasphemy, which according to Iftekharul Bashar, a researcher at the think-tank RSIS, “bolsters violent behavior.” He further explains that the Pakistani society has experienced increased fragmentation, driven by widening economic disparities, leading to an upsurge in violence against minority religious groups. The emergence of extremist and vigilante factions within Pakistan, some of which have significant financial backing, has also contributed to this distressing trend.

The sequence of events in Jaranwala began with reports circulating on social media about two men allegedly desecrating the Quran. Authorities received multiple calls about protests and fires early Wednesday morning. Torn pages of the sacred text, with blasphemous content scribbled on them in red marker ink, were discovered near a Christian community. These reports quickly spread throughout the city, igniting a wave of outrage within the Muslim community. Consequently, mobs targeted and looted the homes of Christians, with their possessions being pulled onto the streets and set ablaze. Shocking videos captured the sight of protesters destroying Christian buildings while the police appeared to passively watch.

Amir Mir, the Information Minister for Punjab province, condemned the alleged blasphemy and declared that thousands of police personnel had been dispatched to the area, resulting in the detention of numerous individuals. Remarkably, the mob responsible for the violence primarily consisted of individuals affiliated with an extreme Islamist political party called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). However, the TLP vehemently denies any involvement in these acts of aggression. Despite the condemnation and calls for swift action from caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul-Haq Kakar, the situation remains highly volatile.

The recent incident has evoked deep pain and distress within the Christian community, with Pakistani bishop Azad Marshall in the neighboring city of Lahore pleading for justice and action. He implores law enforcement and those involved in the dispensation of justice to intervene immediately and guarantee the safety and security of all citizens, emphasizing that their lives are of value within their own homeland.

The situation in Pakistan serves as a reminder of the urgency to address the sensitive issue of blasphemy and religious freedom. It highlights the need for the Pakistani government and society to promote tolerance, respect, and dialogue among different religious communities. An open and inclusive society, where individuals are free to practice their religion without fear of persecution or violence, is crucial for long-term stability and social harmony in Pakistan.