Pakistan: Mobs Torch Churches, Houses of Christians Over Blasphemy Allegations

At least 197 people have been accused of blasphemy in Pakistan so far this year.

Karachi: On August 16 – two days after the celebration of Independence Day in Pakistan – a mob torched five churches and several houses in Punjab district’s Jaranwala town over allegations of blasphemy.

The events took place after a first information report (FIR) was lodged early morning on Wednesday (August 16) against Raja Amir Masih – a resident of the Christian Colony, known as Cinema Basti – for allegedly committing blasphemy.

According to several reports, some local Muslims accused Raja Amir and his friend of desecrating the Holy Quran and making objectionable comments.

They both hailed from the Cinema Basti area, a Christian colony.

An announcement was made from the Mehtab Mosque, where a man was seen inciting locals through a loudspeaker, saying: “Who will fight against those who desecrated the holy Quran, while you sit and eat at your homes?”

Following the announcement, the mob attacked the area and burnt churches and houses.

The police have arrested Raja Amir under sections 295 B and C for purportedly desecrating the holy Quran and writing derogatory remarks about the Prophet.

The man who made the announcement from the mosque has been arrested.

An FIR has been registered against the mob. According to the locals, religious extremist parties such as the Jamaat-Ahle-Sunnat and Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan led the mob.

However, Peter Jacob, a human rights activist and executive director at the Centre for Social Justice, said that the alleged blasphemous paper had the accused’s picture attached to it, which raises suspicions. He questioned how someone would commit a crime and then leave behind evidence of his or her identity. He also pointed out that this pattern has been seen in cases such as in Shanti Nagar in 1997, Sangla Hill in 2005, Gojra and Korian in 2009, and many other incidents.

“Raja Amir Masih, who is alleged to have committed blasphemy, is illiterate and works as a sanitation worker,” he said.

The Jaranwala tragedy has left numerous Christians homeless and instilled fear among religious minorities throughout the nation. The places of worship that had once provided solace for the Christian community were reduced to ashes.

Farhatullah Babar, former senator and president of PPP’s Human Rights Cell, condemned the incident and said that there are disturbing reports on social media of churches being desecrated in Jaranwala, Faisalabad. He added that Christians were tortured, and that the silence of the administration was deafening.

The Jaranwala incident has happened ahead of the elections in Pakistan, and [when] religious political parties are seeking funds and increasing their vote bank, said Jacob.

The politics of Blasphemy in Pakistan

This is not only the first blasphemous case that has emerged in Punjab.

Jacob said that in 2023 so far, 197 people have been accused of blasphemy so far this year. Of these 85% were Muslims who belonged to perhaps other sects; 9% were Ahmadis, and 4.4% were Christians.

According to the Centre for Social Justice, there were 104 blasphemy cases in Punjab, Sindh (51), Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (28), Balochistan (01), and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (13).

Pakistan’s former dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, had strengthened the blasphemy law, imposing stringent penalties for violations.

This year, the Pakistani Parliament introduced the ‘Criminal Law (Amendment) Law, 2023,’ which made revisions to the sensitive blasphemy law, consequently intensifying the punishment.

The Bill has drawn criticism from civil society and activists, who are concerned that it might exacerbate tensions among the citizens and religious minority groups, while empowering religious extremist factions.

“It will take a long time to reconcile with the neighbourhood in Jaranwala where they used to live,” said Jacob, adding that it is the responsibility of the state to heal the wounds of the people who have been directly affected by the incident.