Easter Sunday was no picnic for one community of brick makers in Pakistan, who celebrated the day at their makeshift home in front of the Lahore Press Club after being forcibly removed from where they were living a month earlier. On April 1, while many Christians around the world were celebrating the rise of Christ with families and friends, 50 villagers who have been living on the roadside for weeks spent another day dealing with hunger and the threat of eviction by police. The group, including 27 children, was driven out of the government-owned land on which they were staying on March 5 and are now effectively homeless. They are all parishioners from the Alba Presbyterian Church in Sankhatra village of Narowal district in Punjab province
. "We are innocent but this is a test. The risen Christ gives us hope and light," said Pastor Aashir Aftaab as he addressed his congregation on a dusty plot of land. Nearby, banners reading "Happy Eid" were displayed on a steel guardrail in front of the club. "Eid," meaning celebration, is a traditional Muslim greeting used for important festivals including Christian holidays like Christmas and Easter.
The decorations also included two large wooden crosses. In a rare treat for the villagers, funds had been scraped together and some of the women were cooking chicken as part of the Easter Sunday feast. "Usually we only eat parathas [fried flatbread] and tea in the morning," said Kundan Masih, an elderly refugee. "The Easter menu was lavish. We store water from the building over there in empty plastic bottles."
The community was forced to vacate 1,745 meters of government-owned land in Sankhatra village after they were allegedly attacked with bricks by a band of workers. The villagers claim the workers report to a brick kiln owner called Muhammad Ismail, a member of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)
, a center-right conservative party.
Pastor Aftaab said he was still nursing an injury after one of the bricks struck him on his left shoulder. As soon as the terrified community had fled, he said, the workers immediately began securing the area so they could not return. "They installed an electric meter and built a boundary wall around the community center. Ismail is trying to claim the government land using fake documents. We are trying to stop them," he told ucanews.com. The Evacuee Trust Property Board, a department of the Punjab government, which is responsible for the upkeep of important religious monuments and holy places, auctioned four plots of land totalling 726,000 square meters from the village in June 2016, he added. The villagers sent a copy of a poster advertising the auction to the chief justice of Pakistan on March 3 and are now waiting for justice to be served, they said. A number of church groups are providing them with occasional ration packages, including the National Commission for Justice and Peace. The Presbyterian Church has donated tents made from bamboo. Bait-ul-Mal, a government charity that is located in front of the press club, allows them to use its toilets and collect water from their office building daily from 4pm to 6pm. "We spend some of our time blocking the roads here and protesting against land grabbers. Now police have threatened to evacuate us," said Pastor Aftaab. Life on the road has taken its toll on some of the village refugees. Masih said he has had a raging fever for days. Several women complained of skin allergies, problems with their eyes, and the threat of disease and being bitten from street rats.
The Rev. Majid Abel, a moderator for the local Presbyterian church, urged the government to help the group. "We are praying for them. Both the education and health of these children are at stake," he said. "We've arranged several meetings between village elders and Christian lawmakers, but they lack documents showing ownership of the property so we are not confident the police will help them." Last year, the Christians of Sankhatra village made a similar migration to Lahore after their mud houses were demolished by a mob of 500 people, one of a series of cases in recent times of Christian persecution by angry mobs
. Last year's mob is believed to include the same figures who attacked them this year. In both cases, the attackers' goal was to remove the Christian villagers and establish a boundary wall around a community center near their church, sources said. The wall has since been built.
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