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Pakistan Christians fear reprisal after blasphemy allegation

Muslim crowd threatens to attack Christian locality in Punjab province after finding a note insulting Islam
Muslims protesting at the Faisalabad road intersection in Sargodha city in Pakistan's Punjab province, on July 16, against an alleged case of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad

Muslims protesting at the Faisalabad road intersection in Sargodha city in Pakistan's Punjab province, on July 16, against an alleged case of blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad (Photo supplied)

Published: July 18, 2023 11:54 AM GMT
Updated: July 18, 2023 12:14 PM GMT

Fear has gripped residents of a predominantly Christian neighborhood in an eastern Pakistan city as Muslim mobs threatened to attack them for alleged blasphemy against Islam.

Sunday masses were cut short and police were deployed to guard Maryam Town in Sargodha in Punjab province on July 16, after a local Muslim allegedly found a piece of paper with caricatures and comments insulting Prophet Muhammad and his wife Aisha.

Police said the paper was found near the man's house and contained a handwritten note from “an unknown soldier of Maryam Town.”

The note allegedly also lauded the desecration of the Quran in Sweden last month.

The local police registered a case against the unknown offender and formed a five-member committee of local clerics to coordinate the investigation with the administration.

However, hundreds of angry Muslims blocked traffic and burnt tires on the Faisalabad road intersection near Maryam town, which is home to more than 4,000 Christians.

The protestors gave a 48-hour ultimatum to the police to arrest the culprit.

Announcements were made from the local mosques early morning on Sunday alleging blasphemy by a Christian from Maryam Town and threatening to attack the neighborhood, said Sanwar Balm, a Catholic lawyer.

"Police immediately cordoned off the neighborhood and established guard posts, but nearly half of the Christian population fled their homes fearing retribution,” he told UCA News.

A dozen Christian men were arrested as suspects just because their identity cards mentioned Maryam Town as the address, Balm added.

“We hope the arrests will calm down the protestors and the innocent will be freed eventually," he said.

The Catholic lawyer said this was the third case of alleged blasphemy registered in Sargodha city in the past two months.

“It is a conspiracy to spark unrest,” he alleged.

On July 8, police arrested Zaki Masih after a local Muslim accused him of insulting Islam in a Facebook post.

On June 30, tension gripped Chak 49 Shumaali village of Sargodha district after a Biblical verse posted on Facebook by Haroon Shahzad was deemed to liken Muslims to pagans and disrespect animal sacrifice.

Catholic priests in Sargodha refused to comment amid the tense situation.

Asif Shehzad, a Catholic from Maryam Town, said he had decided to stay put despite the uneasy calm.

"Local politicians and police have guaranteed our safety and security,” he said.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan. Allegations have led to mob attacks on Christian settlements, especially in the Punjab province.

In its annual fact sheet, the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice noted that 171 blasphemy cases were reported in 2022, 84 in 2021, 208 in 2020, 36 in 2019, and 61 in 2018.

At least 2,120 people were accused of committing blasphemy between 1987 and 2022 and Punjab province tops the list with more than 75 percent of the cases.

Pakistan had 2.6 million Christians, who form just 1.27 percent of its 207 million people, mostly Muslims, according to the 2017 national census.

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