PAKISTAN: Christian houses were burned with connivance between the government of Punjab and land grabbers 

(Photo courtesy of the Daily Express)

The small incident of a quarrel between three Christian and Muslim friends during a drinking session (of alcohol) turned into the ransacking, looting and burning of 180 Christian houses in Lahore, the capital of Punjab province. The fighting between the friends happened on Tuesday, March 5 but after three days some people in high places used the incident to grab the land and property owned by the Christians. The planners used and pressured a Muslim, a friend of a Christian alleged to be a blasphemer, to lodge a First Information Report (FIR) with the police station on Friday, March 8.

Shahid Imran, a Muslim and barber by profession, was a very close friend of the Christian, Sawan Masih. Apart from his barber shop Imran was also doing illegal business of buying and selling liquor along with another Muslim friend. On March 5 when they were having drinks in the late hours they scuffled on some business issue and the Christian proved himself more powerful than his Muslim friend. Shahid Imran was deeply insulted that a Christian had beaten him and he threatened Masih that he would face dire consequences. Imran discussed the incident with activists from banned religious organizations who later had discussions with land grabbers who, for a period of two years, had been pressurising the Christian community of Joseph Colony, Badami Bagh, to vacate so that they could turn it into a huge commercial area.

On March 8, during the Friday prayers, it was announced through the mosque loud speaker that Masih committed blasphemy by passing remarks against the last prophet of Islam. The police who were already prepared arrested Masih when a crowed attacked the community under the leadership of Imran. In the ensuing incident they beat Masih’s father seriously. The police asked the community to vacate the area as there were chances of further attacks, totally ignoring their responsibility to protect members of the religious community. The police left the area thereby providing a perfect opportunity for the attackers to return the next day, March 9. It is unconscionable that among the attackers were members of the assembly and even one from the national assembly, Mr. Riaz Malik. There was also one member of the Punjab provincial assembly, Mr. Asad Ashraf. Both of these men are from the ruling party of the province, the PML-N. These men totally ignored their duty to uphold the Constitution of the land which is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion to all. Instead they joined the mob using filthy language and provoking the people to burn all the belongings and houses.

It is also unworthy of the press and media houses that no reporting or comments were made about the real cause behind the attack. It is interesting that in this instance, the person who made the accusation of blasphemy is himself a blasphemer as he is selling alcohol which is forbidden by Islam.

The attackers were from the Madressas (Muslim seminaries) and most of the persons were from nearby provinces and were not familiar with the area and the PML-N workers who were guiding them.

Today (March 11) in the early morning, a police party opened fire with their service weapons at St. Francis Church, Kot Lakhpat, Lahore damaging the Church and the Cross. They also fired at the gate of the Church. The people were scared and left the place immediately. The police told them to close the church and warned them that if they did not then they would face problems. The police were obviously following the wishes of the land grabbers who are interested in the area as it is a large industrial place and the property is highly sought after.

This is not the first incident of attacks on religious minority groups in the province by the ruling party of the government. During the last five years of the government of PML-N more than 200 persons from minority groups were killed in attacks on Christians, Ahmadis and Shias. To-date more than ten churches have been attacked and burned by government protected henchmen. On July 31, 2009, in the Gojra city incident more than 100 houses belonging to Christians were attacked by members from banned religious organizations under the leadership of a member of the provincial assembly, Mr. Abdul Qadir Awan, from the PML-N. In this incident eight persons were burned alive, including five women and children. The attackers were arrested but soon released one by one by the courts that are inclined towards the PML-N.

The government in Punjab is running a hate drive against the minority groups so Punjab has become a safe haven of the Taliban, Al-Qaida and other banned organizations including Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Lashkar-e-Taiba which was responsible for conducting terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. The Chief Minister of Punjab province has offered the terrorist groups a place to live so they do not conduct any terrorist activities against his government. Previously the governor of Punjab was assassinated by a policeman from the Punjab Elite Force and the former federal minister, who was Christian, was also assassinated. The policeman is now considered a hero.

The attacks and incidents of killings of Christians are due to the sheer negligence and biased attitude of the Punjab provincial government and police. The Punjab government is notorious for appeasing banned Muslim militant organisations. The Punjab provincial government, during the bye elections in 2009, released a number of extremist leaders from the jails who were involved in sectarian violence and killings, which helped them to win the elections.

The continuous use of the blasphemy laws to attack anyone who might not share the same views as the government or whose land is valuable has become the best tool for the hate movement against the religious minority groups.

The recent incident at Joseph Colony has set a precedent that any religious group can hire people and start attacking on the excuse of blasphemy and as has happened constantly in the past the police and the government has failed to provide protection to the minorities. Not only are they failing to provide protection but in view of the fact that members of the assemblies are involved in the incident it is blatantly clear that the government approves of the attacks.

The police officers that left the Christian community open to attack and the assembly members who actually participated in the attack which resulted in the burning of 180 houses belonging to members of the Christian minority should be prosecuted and punished according to the law.

Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which are related to the blasphemy laws and Ahmadis for presenting themselves as Muslims, should be repealed immediately. Indeed, the government should immediately abolish the Blasphemy law completely which was introduced by a fundamentalist military dictator in the 1980s for the purpose of prosecuting religious minorities. If not then the government should also follow the amendment made in the Blasphemy law that no FIR for Blasphemy can be filed without an officer of the rank of Superintendent of Police being present. Therefore the government should take action against the responsible police officers who, without proper investigations, filed the FIR for Blasphemy at the pressure from some Muslim extremist groups. In view of this Sawan Masih must be released immediately and provided with police protection in order to ensure his safety and that of his family.

No progress will ever be made in Pakistan with regard to the safety of religious minorities until the government realises its responsibility to enforce the provisions laid down in the Constitution which they have sworn to uphold. Without this commitment on their part democracy will not survive.