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Fear and anger grip Punjabi village

A mob attack on a small Christian church has again highlighted Pakistan's lack of religious freedom

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Fear and anger grip Punjabi village

Trinity Pentecostal Church in Hakimpura, Punjab province, after it was attacked by a mob on May 9. (Photo: Khalid Shehzad)

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Bricks lay scattered at the entrance to Trinity Pentecostal Church following a mob attack. Its blue gate has been laid aside to allow the entrance of protesters.

Politicians and police officers have been visiting the site since an armed mob attacked the church in the Punjabi village of Hakimpura on the morning of May 9. A blasphemy case has been registered against Aon Abbas, a Muslim property dealer, and seven others for desecrating the church. They are still at large.

“They raided while abusing and threatening to burn Christians and their church. After demolishing the wall and breaking the cross, they entered and challenged anyone to oppose them. They escaped before the police arrived. This is tyranny against us. They tried to create a fight between Muslims and Christians and create hate between both religions,” said Pastor Samuel Hadayat in a first information report.

Only a senior police official above the rank of superintendent can launch a report of blasphemy, a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan which has seen those accused of the crime targeted by hardline groups.

In February, a Christian tailor was left half-paralyzed after being shot in the head in a mob attack on a church under construction.

In November 2019, a mob raided St. Dominic Catholic Church in Waqya Chak village of Arifwala subdistrict, destroying its boundary wall and gate. They also removed a cross from a wall.

In May 2019, a mob attacked two families in Arifwala after a mosque announced on its loudspeakers that Christians had insulted the Prophet Muhammad.

According to Pastor Hadayat, who has been managing Trinity Pentecostal Church for 22 years, the incident has a property dispute as its background. More than 60 families are members of the small church in Hakimpura.

“Last year we purchased an empty plot of 101 square meters to extend the church for our growing number of worshipers. The former owners pressurized us to return the land. When the church was closed due to the coronavirus lockdown, they took advantage of the empty plot,” Pastor Hadayat told UCA News.

“Fear and anger have gripped our community. Stand with us. We have the registry of this damaged property. We demand justice and protection and strict action against the filthy persons who desecrated our church.”

Khalid Shehzad, a Catholic human rights activist, visited the site a few hours after the attack.

“Even local Muslims are condemning the tragedy in the holy month of Ramadan and urging both parties to settle the dispute in community meetings. Small communities are usually targeted to keep them silent,” he said.

“Muslim social media users insult our religion and then apologize. The authorities have a different reaction when someone from a minority accidently commits the same cybercrime.”

Punjab Minister for Human Rights and Minorities Affairs Ejaz Alam Augustine has asked for a report of the attack from police, while Senator Kamran Michael vowed to pursue the case until the arrest of the culprits.

“This is very painful; people are already tense amid the ongoing war with corona. It is terrorism to hurt the religious sentiments of a community,” said Michael.

Villagers protest the attack on Trinity Pentecostal Church on May 9. (Photo: Khalid Shehzad)

Threat to minorities over worship

In its 2019 annual report, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) claimed that religious minorities remained unable to enjoy the freedom of religion or belief guaranteed to them under Pakistan’s constitution.

“HRCP found there was a general feeling that security measures for their communities were merely temporary rather than long-term. As a result of ongoing threats, politicians have expressed concern over inadequate security at minorities’ places of worship in Quetta (the capital of Balochistan province) and other parts of the province,” the report states.

“Less successful has been the promise of freedom of speech, with no apparent differentiation being made between legitimate expressions of opinion or factual reporting and actual incitement to hate and violence against religious or ethnic minorities.”

Religious minorities in Pakistan have called for the implementation of a judgment made by a former chief justice in 2014 as representing a comprehensive statement of their demands. The directions included setting up a task force to develop a strategy for religious tolerance, action against hate speech in the media, and a special police force to protect places of worship.

In October 2019, Balochistan High Court heard a petition regarding security at places of worship of minority communities, submitted by Jasper Singh. The bench called on the provincial government to provide details about religious and welfare institutions, graveyards and other properties of minorities in Balochistan province, particularly Quetta.

According to HRCP, several places of religious significance for minorities and their venues for worship have been shut down. These include an Ahmadi place of worship in Lahore and a church in Toba Tek Singh district in Punjab province.

Two Hindu temples were closed in Quetta and Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province last year. 

The commission cited pressure from Muslim communities, governments taking over religious sites and converting them for use for other purposes such as schools, and internal differences between religious minorities as major reasons for places of worship being closed.

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