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Catholics displaced amid Islamist protests in Pakistan

Khadim Rizvi may be gone but his legacy will continue among those who hate diversity and prefer violent narratives

Catholics displaced amid Islamist protests in Pakistan

A policeman throws a stone at supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) during a protest in Lahore on April 12 after the arrest of their leader, who has called for the expulsion of the French ambassador. (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP)

I was travelling back to Lahore with the Caritas Pakistan team when news of the detention of Saad Hussain Rizvi, chief of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), went viral on social media.

It was 3.50pm on April 12. Within an hour TLP workers had blocked 17 roads in Lahore, the capital of Punjab. Soon we started receiving news about the blockage of the Lahore-Islamabad highway due to the violent protest. Soon our phones were flooded with videos of blood-soaked police officers and water cannon and tear gas being deployed against protesters.

Worried and unsure, Caritas aid workers began calling their families. One was concerned about the departure of her 70-year-old mother to the US from Lahore airport that night. A bigger problem was that the mother was in Faisalabad, 152 kilometers from Lahore. Her phone never stopped ringing.

Following a lengthy conversation with relatives in Faisalabad and in the US, her family finally paid extra to a local driver to make sure the elderly woman reached Lahore safe and caught the flight in time.

Another staff member recalled the morning of Feb. 29, 2016, when Mumtaz Qadri, a former police bodyguard, was executed for the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer over his opposition to the country’s controversial blasphemy laws.

“I was stuck in the traffic for six hours. The helpless commuters ran to a nearby mud house to purchase milk and food for their children. The kind villager later called several street hawkers to sell food items to the passengers trapped in their vehicles,” he told me.

“I gave 700 rupees [US$4.60] to a motorcyclist to drop me at the exit of the motorway. Unable to find a way, I paid the same to return to my bus, which was stuck and surrounded by hundreds of vehicles.”

TLP was born the same day. The ultra-religious group paralyzed the country for three days after the acquittal of Catholic death row inmate Asia Bibi.

Bibi, a mother of five who had been held in solitary confinement on death row since 2010, had her blasphemy conviction overturned by the Supreme Court in October 2018.

In November 2020, millions of people took to the streets for the funeral of TLP chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a hardline cleric, in what was described as the biggest funeral procession in the history of Lahore.

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His son, Saad Hussain Rizvi, was arrested a day after TLP’s central council had warned the government that if did not expel the French ambassador they would march on Islamabad from Lahore on April 20.

This was the first time I had become an internally displaced person

Protests broke out on the evening of April 12 in all Pakistan's major cities. A TLP worker was reportedly shot dead during a demonstration in the southern city of Karachi.

I was among the hundreds displaced near Islamabad motorway. Unable to find a way back home, we finally decided to take refuge and spend the night at the diocesan unit of Caritas Pakistan in Rawalpindi near Islamabad. This was the first time I had become an internally displaced person. 

For the past 15 years, I have reported on several emergency situations including annual floods and the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the worst seismic disaster in the country's history. Most victims didn’t have the privilege to spend the first night of disaster in carpeted rooms and bedding for everyone. I thank God for this facility.

“Assess the situation before leaving. Stay with the staff. Danger is in Lahore as well as in Rawalpindi,” my wife texted me. I texted back on reaching the office.

Meanwhile, Dr. Asad Aslam, chief executive of Mayo Hospital and in charge of coronavirus wards, warned that Lahore hospitals are almost out of oxygen supply amid rising Covid-19 cases. About 1,100 coronavirus patients are presently admitted to various government hospitals of Lahore while almost 250 patients are on ventilators, reported news channels.

While TLP workers battle on the roads for freedom of their leader, these patients battle for their lives alone in quarantined wards. In my heart, I pray for their recovery and reunion with their loved ones amid the ongoing crisis.

The state must act fast to save lives and disperse the crowds. In November 2018, police, rangers and other law enforcement agencies detained Khadim Rizvi and hundreds of his followers in an undeclared crackdown against the group. They can do the same again.

Religious minorities, who account for 4 percent of the population, simply cannot win this war

Christians in Pakistan are already stressed by disturbing images of violence against two Christian nurses of Faisalabad detained for alleged blasphemy at a government hospital last week.

Those protesting on the roads right now raise slogans similar to those echoed in the emergency unit of Civil Hospital. A pastor is now using social media to urge youth to “shed blood to protect the daughters of the nation.” The so-called leaders are only adding fuel to the fire raging on the roads at this moment. Religious minorities, who account for 4 percent of the population, simply cannot win this war.

We can only teach our young ones to avoid engaging in discourse of religion with the majority, keep them close to the Church and empower them with skills and resources to rise above the middle class. Khadim Rizvi may be gone but his legacy will continue among those who hate diversity and prefer violent narratives amid the widening gap between rich and poor. Instead of engaging with them, we should endeavor for a better future.

Kamran Chaudhry is a Catholic commentator based in Lahore. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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