Community cry foul after parish blasted as affront to Muslim faith but new land deeds outside village still not forthcoming
Christians have been told to remove all religious symbols from the church in Nayya Sarabah village in Pakistan’s Punjab province, which belongs to the Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA) group. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Six months after villagers in Muslim-majority Nayya Sarabah (Chak 336) in Pakistan's Punjab province colluded with police to shut down the only Christian church in the village, negotiations remain deadlocked pending a new land deal.
Christians claim they are being persecuted after the church, run by Pastor Samuel Masih, held its last service in December and has since been sealed, with orders in June to remove all religious symbols and traces of Christianity from the property.
The community of 40 Christian families in this village of 400 people in Toba Tek Singh district near Faisalabad has since been holding weekly prayers in their homes.
But they claim they are being treated unfairly in not being able to practice their religion freely and are now operating under almost impossible conditions.
"We paid to have this church built," said 70-year-old Christian Rafaqat Masih, a retired army officer and union councilor for minorities who is at the vanguard of efforts to resolve the issue.
"You can still smell the fresh coat of paint. But the musical instruments that were once used by our church choir have now been removed," Masih told ucanews.com. His uncle Rafiq Masih owns the land on which the church was built.
"Our houses are blessed by God but worshippers are being forced to congregate on people's verandas as there is no proper ventilation inside, and the humidity is getting worse," added Rafaqat, who hosted the latest round of Friday prayers on June 8.
He was referring to the church belonging to the Full Gospel Assemblies (FGA), an evangelical group working in the country.
Rafaqat said the church, located just meters from his house, is at risk of being torn down as authorities sketch out plans to relocate it outside the village, where it is less likely to foment religious tension.
Muslim resident Hajji Muhammad Siddique was quoted by other media as suggesting the property was an affront to local sensibilities.
"Muslims are in the majority in this village so we can't allow a church here," said the 73-year-old, who runs a local dispensary.
"Now we are working with the civil administration to give a piece of land to Christians outside the village," he added.
"We will make [them] write an agreement that they will sell this current church building or at least dismantle the church structure and crosses."
Treaty offers state-owned land
In an affidavit signed on June 5, the local administration proposed that a new church be built on state-owned land outside the boundaries of the settlement.
The pact, agreed after consultations with Christians and Muslims, also mandates that all religious symbols must be removed from the current church as a preliminary step.
For Muslim shopkeeper Shamshad Ali, who has been lobbying to have the property shuttered since it was established in 2012, the news could not have come a moment too soon.
He said Muslims who live nearby see its existence as a threat to their religion and an intrusion on their social lives on various levels.
"The Christians make a loud noise when they pray and they have caused widespread anger among the public," he said.
"We are worried this will affect our children and their faith. For example, who would marry our daughters once their suitors learn that we live next to a church?" he asked.
He said he sympathized with the Christians' plight and has been working with others to support them and stave off any threats to their safety.
"Moreover, the proposed new site covers the same area [177 square meters] as the old church building," he added.
According to Turbaiz Sadiq, the district's assistant commissioner, the church was never properly registered so requests to hold prayer meetings there could not be entertained.
"The plot was acquired under a scheme that prohibits any commercial or religious usage of the land," he said. "We couldn't even build a mosque there if we wanted to."
He said the church had been built in violation of local laws but the issue did not come to light until Muslims began kicking up a fuss.
"We want to prevent any clashes resulting from the growing tension between the two parties," he said. "The police have also been asked to keep a lid on things by maintaining law and order in the area."
Churches not registered with the Auqaf Department, which supervises important religious monuments and holy places, are deemed illegal by the government.
In January, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which shares a border with Punjab, closed six churches in the capital city of Abbottabad — where Osama bin Laden was found and killed in a U.S. raid — but they have since reopened.
Challenges lie ahead
According to Pastor Taskeen, acting as a spokesman for the FGA Church, the situation in Nayya Sarabah is unique.
"Muslims from a neighboring village helped to ensure the church got built when the Christians faced a funding shortage and were unable to finance the construction of its roof," he said.
"Now we have been forbidden from observing our religious rituals there and we've been ordered to remove the cross, too," he added.
"But we don't plan on doing that until we've received the ownership papers for the new plot from the police. We're also wondering who is going to pay to establish the new church building."
Police oversaw the signing of an agreement in December 2017 during which Christians pledged to hold all future religious ceremonies in their homes rather than at the church.
"We were warned that legal action would be taken if we violated that agreement, but now we are hearing that religious gatherings are even being prohibited inside our own homes," Pastor Taskeen said.
"Last Christmas was a very sad time for us," he added. "When relatives came to visit, they weren't coming to wish us seasonal greetings. They came to give us their condolences."
Easter prayers in April were also organized under police protection, he said.
Churches in Pakistan are considered at high risk of attack from militant groups and Islamic extremists with at least three hit last year, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
"Although there was a drop in the number of terrorist attacks in 2017, violence against 'soft targets' such as religious minorities and law enforcement agencies [is] on the increase," the HRCP's annual report stated last year.
Pakistan ranked No.4 among 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, according to a 2017 watch list by Christian support group Open Doors World.
Critics say the violent persecution of Christians is a common occurrence in Pakistan, where they are subject to bombings, murder, rape, abductions, forced conversions to Islam, fabricated cases of blasphemy and evictions from their homes and communities.
The HRCP has recommended that any judges called to rule on such cases be appointed based on pre-set criteria including a broad exposure to human rights issues.
"Candidates who demonstrate a bias against gender or minorities should not be elevated to the bench," it said in the report.
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