There is no hope for better days and a separate province may be the only solution, said a Sunday school teacher
The messages for Christians are written on the ash-covered wall of the Salvation Army Church in Jaranwala, a Christian settlement in Pakistan's Punjab province, where at least 19 churches were destroyed on Aug. 16 during an anti-Christian violence. (Photo: Kamran Chowdry)
Christians from across Pakistan are expressing their unflinching solidarity and support to their fellow religionists in Jaranwala town in Punjab province following last week’s violence.
Church groups are visiting the town’s three Christian settlements which bore the brunt of the Aug. 16 attack by a Muslim mob over alleged desecration of pages from the Quran.
The groups are providing food aid, clothes and household items, and praying with the victims.
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At the Salvation Army Church, messages are written with ash on the burnt walls proclaiming: “Jesus is the light of the world” and “We want religious freedom.” Similar slogans and messages are on display everywhere, on the damaged walls of the churches and houses of Christians.
The Salvation Army Church, built in 1904, stands above the residence of its pastor Arshad Nizam. Inside, the church's main hall, seven adjoining rooms, bathrooms, kitchen and store rooms are covered in thick ash.
The entire building is littered with debris, a grim reminder of the fury unleashed on the tiny minority community after Muslims accused two Christians of committing the alleged act of blasphemy.
Nizam said some 30 churches were attacked by the angry mob in Jaranwala and two nearby villages. These included seven Salvation Army churches, three Catholic churches, three Presbyterian churches and other independent churches belonging to diverse denominations.
Some 20 graves were desecrated inside the local Christian graveyard, he alleged.
The district administration of Faisalabad claimed at least 22 churches were looted by mobs while 91 homes were torched during the violence that lasted a couple of hours.
The Jaranwala police have rounded up 207 suspects for “vandalizing multiple churches and torching homes belonging to the Christian community.”
Four of the damaged churches, including the Catholic Church of Christian town, are being renovated by the government, which also announced financial aid of 2 million rupees (6677.80 US$) for each affected family.
But the Salvation Army Church will have to wait longer before repairs can be undertaken.
“The district administration wanted a quick makeover of the 119-year-old building but we are still in grief,” Nizam told UCA News.
He said the world must see the carnage with its own eyes. He felt the damaged building should be demolished completely.
“The new church should be built from scratch,” Nizam said.
A few pastors and televangelists are liaising with authorities in gathering data and distributing aid. However, members of the affected community alleged the exercise was not transparent enough.
Some Christians working as cleaners in local shops said they were being fired while others complained of being threatened by supporters of the arrested Muslims.
Nirma Mushtaq, a Sunday school teacher at the Salvation Army Church, said the landlord of her house in a Muslim locality has asked her to vacate it.
“The owner is asking us to shift to a Christian locality. It is very difficult to find a new house in the present chaotic situation,” she said.
Mushtaq said they were “constantly being stared at in public spaces” due to their Salvation Army uniforms, which marked them as Christians.
“There is no hope for better days. Maybe a separate province for Christians is the only solution. We don’t want to have anything with such people,” she said
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church is getting a makeover with new doors, windows and even new fans being fixed in the meeting hall and computer lab.
A red carpet now adorns the chapel upstairs. Outside, damaged dice, broken furniture and stations of cross pictures are piled up in a heap.
The church is surrounded by burnt-down houses, lined up on both sides of the streets in the Christian town locality.
Catechist Rafaqat Gill said the mob burnt his motorcycle and looted his laptop, harmonium and tablas (Indian drums).
“We are living in damaged houses without doors and strewn with broken furniture,” he said.
He wasn’t paid any compensation. “Our whole life was spent gathering these items, how can we live a normal life now,” he asked.
Gill said many like him were left to run after local officials and make the rounds of the office of the assistant commissioner.
Hina Jilani, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) urged the churches to take “a hard stance.”
“The Christian community leaders should assert their right on the basis of equal citizenship. Instead of being on the back foot, they should show a great deal of confidence,” she said.
Jilani further said that “the ghettoized mentality” adopted by Christians won’t help them anymore.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference observed “a day of prayer” on Sunday, Aug. 20, for the Jaranwala Christians.
At a consultation on the increasing mob violence against minorities held in Lahore by HRCP, the speakers urged the government to show its resolve and adopt zero tolerance for religious extremism.
They demanded “sociological and psychological support” for the victims in Jaranwala.
Christians form about 1.6 percent of Pakistan's 241 million people.
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