By Kamran Chaudhry, Lahore
Updated: March 26, 2018 10:43 AM GMT
Pakistani children join a Palm Sunday rally in Dhir village of Shahdara Town on March 25. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Christians in a Pakistani village — rocked by blasphemy protests just over a month ago — held their first public procession on Palm Sunday.
Some 200 hundred Christians joined the procession through Christian areas of Dhir village, Shadara Town about 22 kilometers from the city of Lahore. Men, women and children participated under the watchful gaze of two armed volunteers.
The Palm Sunday procession occurred after many of the Christians in the village were forced to flee the village last month due to protests related to an alleged case of blasphemy.
"We were not sure about holding a public rally. Just a month ago, most of the villagers had fled the village for fear of mob attack," Pastor Safnia Bashir of Betania Church told ucanews.com.
"Finally we decided to steer the worshippers only in the Christian neighborhood," he said.
Mobs of Muslims reportedly hounded Christians out of the area in mid-February as they demanded the arrest of 18-year-old Patras Masih, a local sanitary worker who was accused of posting blasphemous content on his Facebook account.
Activists from the Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik demanded the death penalty and staged protests in Dhir and other locations in Lahore.
The situation became more tense after one of the teenager's relatives was brought in for questioning by security forces and allegedly jumped out of a building while he was being interrogated.
Sajid Masih, a cousin of Patras, fractured both legs and suffered multiple injuries after he leapt from the fourth floor of the Punjab headquarters of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on Feb. 23.
Christians responded with nationwide protests and a hunger strikes. Meanwhile, the families of both men remain in hiding as they fear reprisals from Muslim extremists.
Hameed Masih, who used to rent a lower floor of the same building where Patras lived, said he took his four children and moved to another part of the city as soon as the chaos erupted last month.
"When we came back here two weeks later, we found our apartment had been trashed," said the manual laborer.
"All of our utensils and clothes were strewn over the floor. They had smashed our TV set and cupboards. The washing machine was wrecked. They even damaged my neighbor's motorbike," he added.
He said the Palm Sunday rally had given the Christian community a much-needed confidence boost after weeks' spent fearing for their lives.
"We definitely got a boost from being able to profess our faith openly in the streets after being haunted and living in terror," he said. "It was a big deal."
However, Catholic human rights' activists like Khalid Shehzad expressed concern over the ramifications the rally could have.
"The pastor should have contacted the police and asked for reinforcements," he said.
"Christian villagers could easily be targeted again. The authorities will blame the organizer of the rally if it provokes more attacks," he added.
Bishop Emmanuel of Betania Church is also reportedly being blocked from returning to Dhir by Muslim villagers, many of whom believe he helped to hide Patras and later handed the teenager over to police for the young man's protection.
Six armed volunteers are now guarding the church during prayer services as the atmosphere in the town remains tense.
During his Palm Sunday sermon, Pastor Bashir urged villagers to exercise caution and demonstrate religious sensitivity when using social media.
"Ignorance caused trouble in our village. Observe a fast and pray for an end to this lawlessness and terrorism," he said.
"Pray for the rulers, even if you do not like them. We are only safe when our country is safe," he added.
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