Pakistani families of imprisoned Christians get church aid

Funds will help keep families afloat while men languish in jail over Youhanabad lynching case
Pakistani families of imprisoned Christians get church aid

Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, national director of the Pakistani Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace, distributes funds to a family member of a Christian imprisoned over the Youhanabad lynching case. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)

The families of Pakistani Christians imprisoned in relation to the murder of two Muslim men during violent riots that erupted in 2015 received financial assistance on from the church, which believes they are falsely accused.

Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani, national director of the Pakistani Catholic bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), distributed 10,000 rupees (US$87) on May 11 at St. Anthony's Church, Lahore to each of the 41 relatives of the 39 Christians who remain imprisoned over in the Youhanabad lynching case.

"We know you are passing through tough times. I have seen that faith is strong in those who are behind bars," said Father Mani while addressing the families.

Their imprisonment followed Taliban suicide bombings outside St. John Catholic Church and Christ Church in Youhanabad in March 2015. At least 15 Christians were killed and 85 others injured. The bombings sparked mass riots involving thousands of Christians who smashed vehicles and property, prompting the deployment of over 1,000 officers.

Police detained two suspected militants in relation to the bombing but they were taken away by the rioters and subsequently beaten to death.

Some 160 Christians were arrested over the killing of the two men and 119 were sent to prison. According to sources, those who were freed did so by giving large bribes to police officials. For the 39 who remain in jail, the next hearing in their trial is on May 17.

Church leaders maintain that most of those in prison were arbitrarily arrested, as they were not identified in a video recording of the lynching. Two of the detainees died in prison last year.

One of these was Usman Shaukat, a father of two who reportedly died of a heart attack in December 2017.

His widow Komal is now waiting for the release of her 21-year-old brother Shakir Habib, who is also among the detained.

"He has grown into a man while being behind bars. My father, a car mechanic, is now the only breadwinner for our family," Komal said.

"We welcome any help we can get from the church, but we need our menfolk to be released so they can come back and support their families."

The financial aid was sponsored by the Holy See (Vatican) Embassy in Islamabad and Aid to the Church in Need.

Father Mani told that the lynching case keeps lingering because doctors, policemen and media workers are being called in as witnesses. 

"Many cameramen were not even present at the scene of the lynching. The failure of busy police officers to appear at trial courts is also causing delays," he said.

"The elderly parents of a number of the inmates have already passed away, and those who have been detained were not even allowed to attend their funerals," he added.

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"We are trying to keep their morale high and we have provided them with Bibles and rosaries in prison. The NCJP is also helping to pay for the education of several of those who have been incarcerated."

Prayers for the "freedom of the falsely accused" and their lawyers were also held in the community hall of St. Anthony's Church, Lahore.

With over 130,000 Christians, Youhanabad is the largest Christian area in Lahore, capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab.

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