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Abuses plague riot-affected Pakistani Christians

Last year's anti-Christian violence left a lasting impact on lives of poor Christians in Punjab's Jaranwala
Arif Masih (far left) is seen with other Maharanwala Christians and their lawyer Shahid Anwar, in suit, after getting bail with the support from the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace

Arif Masih (far left) is seen with other Maharanwala Christians and their lawyer Shahid Anwar, in suit, after getting bail with the support from the Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace. (Photo: Father Khalid Rashid Asi)

Published: April 09, 2024 04:04 AM GMT
Updated: May 02, 2024 06:43 AM GMT

Arif Masih still remembers the day he was left speechless after finding that tons of radishes on his smallholding had started withering last August.

“At first, I thought the radishes were dying due to the August heat. But, I discovered someone had sprayed poisonous chemicals on them. The radishes died one by one,” recalled Masih, 40, from Maharanwala, a village in Punjab province.

The attack on his crop came shortly after Muslim mobs attacked and set fire to a number of churches and about 80 houses in a Christian neighborhood in Jaranwala, a nearby town, on Aug. 16, following the alleged desecration of a Quran by two local Christians.

The rioting that lasted for hours has been described as one of the worst bouts of anti-Christian violence in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

The destruction of Masih's crop meant a net loss of 400,000 rupees (US$1,440). The financial setback left him unable to buy new clothes for his four children at Easter.

A member of the Salvation Army, Masih has been a landless, marginal farmer tilling two hectares of leased agricultural land for over two decades. This was the first time he incurred such a heavy loss.

Most Christians in Jaranwala are poor, illiterate people like Masih who rely on low-paying jobs like sanitary work, domestic help and farming for survival, Church sources say.

Masih’s family is among 450 Christian households in Maharanwala, where the rioting mob attacked and vandalized six churches.

Friends turn rioters

Adding salt to the wounds were some of Masih’s long-time Muslim friends who joined in the rampage.

“My friend Muhammad Bilal phoned and warned me not to go to the Salvation Army church, as he and a mob was about to attack it,” he said.

“I asked him not to, but he started hurling abuse. We had known each other for years. All the attackers were locals, no outsiders. All relationships perished that day,” Masih said.

The number of churches attacked in Jaranwala and neighboring Christian-majority areas is disputed. Some say the figure is 22, while others reported 26 churches were vandalized.

At least 26 churches including three Catholic churches and 80 Christian houses were attacked and set ablaze in Jaranwala and several other Christian settlements on Aug. 16, according to a report from Catholic bishop’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) released last November.

These areas are home to 6,790 Christians, the report said.

Masih has since been struck by further misfortune as the Muslim village chief who allowed him to cultivate on his land for years cancelled the lease agreement after cases were filed against Muslims following the violence.

“My wheat crop which is ready for harvest will be the last crop cultivated on his land,” he said.

Moreover, Masih says he has been falsely accused by a local Muslim who claims the farmer and eight other Christians were planning an attack on his house.

In the aftermath of the Jaranwala attacks, a total of 22 complaints were filed by Christians and 304 people had been arrested as of Feb. 13, according to police. Investigations into 18 cases have been completed and submitted to the local court.

Most of the arrested Muslims have been released and 55 are still in jail, said Muhammad Ali Zia, a police officer in Faisalabad city, which covers Jaranwala.

Zia claimed there has been no further conflict between Muslims and Christians since the attacks.

Police and local authorities have ensured there is no more Christian-Muslim religious conflict, he said, adding that since the Jaranwala attacks centers for the protection of minorities as well as interfaith harmony and peace committees have been set up.

“We are committed to avoiding incidents like Jaranwala happening again,” he added.

Rampant discrimination

Masih said his family has been in a dire situation. He sold three cows to cover family expenses, loans, and the cost of traveling to attend court hearings for the case filed by the Muslim.

He alleged that he has been targeted since March 16 when he accompanied a police officer to identify the houses of the Aug. 16 rioters in his village.

That same morning, three Christians called police to say they had been threatened by Muslims.

“Instead, the police registered a fabricated case against Christians including myself,” Masih said.

Such abuse and violence against minority Christians who make up 2.6 million of the 235 million population and suffer from social discrimination, lack of education and decent employment, Christian leaders say.

A sizable number of Christians are engaged in menial jobs such as sanitary work. The federal and provincial government often reserve low-paying sanitation jobs for Christians only. 

Christians are also routinely abused and attacked by Muslims under the guide of violating controversial blasphemy laws, which punish defamation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad with life imprisonment and the death penalty.

Christians and other minority group members have been killed in Muslim mob attacks instigated by unproven allegations of blasphemy.

Last year, 193 attacks on individuals, properties, and places of worship of minorities were recorded, according to the annual fact sheet of the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based rights group.

Last month, the two Christians accused of blasphemy that sparked the anti-Christian violence in Jaranwala were freed from jail. An anti-terrorism court in Faisalabad allowed their release while the Supreme Court rejected a report on the attacks submitted by the Punjab provincial government.

Meanwhile, the NCJP has secured bail for all nine Maharanwala Christians including Masih until April 18 amid ongoing investigations.

‘Heavy price’

Besides such legal support, Catholic and Protestant churches have been offering humanitarian services to affected Christians to help rebuild their lives.

Church leaders have distributed aid to the affected families. Catholic charity Caritas has offered support to rebuild 40 Christian houses destroyed in the violence.

A team of 15 Catholics painted renovated and rebuilt Christian houses in Jaranwala and surrounding villages before Easter celebrations.

Faisalabad diocese has formed a Christian Joint Action Committee on the Jaranwala incident to oversee humanitarian assistance to victims.

Christians will receive motorcycles and rickshaws soon, said Father Khalid Rashid Asi, the convenor the committee.

“Some local rickshaw drivers avoid taking Christians in Jaranwala blaming them for having the Muslims arrested. We condemn this kind of harassment and discrimination,” he said.

Waqar Masih, a Protestant Christian and mason in Maharanwala, said he lost much of his monthly income of 30,000 rupees since the attack.

“We can barely afford three meals a day,” said the father of two, alleging that Muslims have been boycotting Christian workers.

“Nobody hires us,” Masih said.

He thanked Church groups for lending a hand to support people like him.

He said such a tragedy would never have happened if the authorities were sincere.

“Fanatism turns people mad. We are paying a heavy price for it,” Masih said.

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