About 600 Christian children have stopped going to school after blasphemy riot in Jaranwala in Punjab province
Slavish Murad, 10, a fifth-grader Christian student is seen with his mother and aunt at their burnt house in Isa Nagri of Jaranwala in Pakistan's Punjab province following a Muslim mob attack. (Photo: Kamran Chaudhry)
Slavish Murad stopped going to school the day after he returned home and found it was covered with ash and smoke following the anti-Christian violence in Christian neighborhoods in eastern Pakistan.
“I am afraid. All my classmates are Muslims,” the ten-year-old told UCA News, adding that he fears his classmates might harm him.
On Aug. 16, a Muslim mob attacked nine settlements in Jaranwala, a Christian neighborhood, and two villages in Faisalabad district of Punjab province, over alleged desecration of the Quran by two local Christians.
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Jaranwala is home to about 5,000 Christians, mostly poor and low-paid sanitation workers.
The mob attacked 21 churches and 400 Christian houses, leaving 19 churches and 89 houses completely burned and destroyed.
Murad’s house in Isa Nagri, one of the violence-hit settlements, was among those burnt.
After their brick house went up in flames, he stood in front of the doorsteps wearing green trousers and a white-green t-shirt and consoled his crying aunt.
This photo became a trending post on social media sites with various Facebook pages sharing it, drawing hundreds of likes. Various media channels also used the picture to highlight the suffering of the affected community.
Murad’s mother Nazia said their family has been having a hard time after all their belongings were destroyed in the violence.
“Murad fainted three times amid humidity,” Nazia recalled.
She said it was disappointing that Christians came under attack just two days after they celebrated Pakistan’s Independence Day on Aug. 14 with zeal and merriment.
“Now the question is what freedom do we have in this country? If they can do this to our houses, they can do the same to us,” she said.
The mother said she had been trying in vain to send Murad back to school.
“The kid doesn’t understand. He is afraid of being harmed in school,” she added.
The family has made a makeshift tent on the street to pass their days until their house is rebuilt, just like hundreds of homeless Christians.
Most of the burnt houses are still littered with charred belongings including melted utensils.
A visiting Christian family donated a pedestal fan to Murad’s family, bringing some comfort to the distraught family amid the hot, humid weather.
Nazia says despite Murad’s reluctance, she is not willing to send him to a nearby school run by a Protestant Church because of its poor quality of education.
A local catechist estimated that some 600 children in Jaranwala are reluctant to return to their schools.
Faisalabad Catholic Diocese which covers Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, runs 11 high schools, six middle schools, and eight primary schools.
However, there are no Catholic schools or convents in Jaranwala, according to the Catholic Board of Education (CBE).
Nadeem Bashir, executive secretary of CBE in Faisalabad said the church plans to hold trauma sessions and workshops for local children from September.
“The area came to our attention after the first Catholic Church was blessed in the settlement called Christian town in 2019,” he said.
Bashir regretted that the computer center, located beneath the church, with 15 computers was vandalized by the mob.
Two weeks after the attack, the situation remains tense in Jaranwala.
Hardline Islamist party, Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), and Joint Action Committee Jaranwala, comprising of Bar Association, trade union, political and religious parties, transporters, petrol pumps, and private school associations, observed a shutdown strike over blasphemy allegations.
The groups have hosted banners to express their disapproval of what they say the “harassment and illegal arrests” of Muslims by police in the name of hunting “unknown culprits.”
Jaranwala Bar Association declared on Aug. 26 that it plans to hold protest sit-ins and rallies at the entrance and exit routes of the city, business and trade centers, and its members will wear black armbands.
Shafiq Masih is a wedding videographer whose house was destroyed in a street behind the Catholic Church in Christian Town.
He said that his two children are also afraid to return to school.
“They are mentally upset. They have panic attacks since we escaped the mob heading towards our basti (slum). We do not allow them to enter the blackened rooms whose ceiling can cave in any minute,” Masih said.
“Our lives cannot be normal unless the house is reconstructed and it will take months,” he added.
First-grader Rehan Saleem recorded a video of the black ruins of his house located opposite the Catholic Church in Christian town. He urges his aunty to upload the video on her Facebook page when the internet service resumes in the area, home to 250 Christian houses.
“Look at the huge hole in our roof. The people of India and Pakistan must help us in Jaranwala,” Saleem narrates in the video.
“My books have burnt. The House of God is fine now. Our house should be the same,” he told UCA News.
Saima Younas, the aunt of the six-year-old, said Saleem remains traumatized.
“Saleem sometimes screams in his sleep. People are providing us crockery, clothes and household items but there are no doors to keep them safe,” she said.
The committee’s convenor Father Khalid Rashid Asi said the psycho-social support of the Christian children of affected houses was the biggest concern.
“Children are afraid and not going to schools. A few went but were not accepted. They are being asked to become Muslims and told that no harm will come to them,” the priest said during the committee meeting on Aug. 27.
“We want to adjust them in our hostels, but nobody wants to come there. Denomination is another problem. They prefer institutes of their own churches,” he said.
Children like Murad are still traumatized by the violent attack.
“The scene of them setting our house on fire and chasing us still haunts me,” he said.
“They might burn me like they burned our house.”
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