Photo of Asia Bibi’s family, a woman who was accused of blasphemy.
It was a familiar scene— hundreds of angry people in the dense urban streets of the major Pakistani city of Lahore, whipped into frenzy by rumors that someone had defiled a Holy Quran. Pounding on doors. Throwing rocks. Demanding blood.
This time, however, the police, backed by specialist national troops, charged into the mob to drive them away and arrested dozens of people. “It is the first time the government has succeeded in acting in time to save both the people and their homes,” Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shah told the international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need.
The May 24 violence was sparked, according to news accounts published in Pakistan, by an incident that allegedly occurred about a mile south of the Sandha district, where Humayyun Faisal, who works for Lahore Waste Management Company, was sweeping roads. Residents of the area claim to have spotted a man burning pages of the Quran. An angry mob quickly gathered and was preparing to “burn him alive,” one witness later told reporters, until police arrived and arrested him. Local Christians felt they had no option but to see Faisal taken into custody for his own immediate safety—he was well-known in the area to suffer from severe mental health problems as well as drug addiction.
Police charged Faisal, 30, with desecration of the Quran, an offense that is punishable with life imprisonment. The law, widely popular among Pakistani voters, is also widely condemned by human-rights organizations around the world.
Though Faisal was already in police custody, about 300 people marched on the Gulshan-e-Ravi police station around 4 p.m., holding signs saying the Quran had been desecrated. They then moved into the small Christian neighborhood where Faisal had lived prior to his arrest.
Local officials from Lahore as well as Punjab state government officials repeatedly urged the crowd to peacefully disperse, to no avail. The mob pelted the police with stones, injuring several, including Haider Ashraf, the police Deputy Inspector General for operations.
“Some were demanding that the suspect be immediately executed in front of the public,” Ashraf told World Watch Monitor.
Two months prior to this incident, after two suicide bombers blew themselves up outside two churches in a Christian neighborhood in the Youhanabad district of Lahore, an angry mob snatched two suspects, both Muslim, from police custody, beat them to death and burned their bodies. Both men were later declared to have had no connection to the bombings.
On May 24 in Faisal’s neighborhood, Ashraf said some in the angry crowd, “were insisting that the suspect be handed to the mob so that in the way that the two Muslims were lynched and burned in Youhanabad, he could be meted out the same punishment.”
Pastor Riaz Malik, a resident of the Christian neighborhood, told World Watch Monitor he saw the protestors as he was passing by the Gulshan-e-Ravi Police Station. “I immediately reached home and alerted everyone in the street of a possible attack,” he said.
Initially, there were young men shouting out names and calling others to gather there, according to Malik. “Soon, the mob swelled to hundreds,” he said. “They tore religious symbols, pelted houses with stones and then looted some of them.”
Another resident, Sharafat Randhawa, told World Watch Monitor he was trapped in his home with his wife, daughter, two daughters-in-law, and a grandson. “I locked the door and went on the top roof from where I could see the entire mob,” Randhawa said. “Among the crowd, one tall man was repeatedly inciting everyone to bring out all Christian women, men, children and elderly, and set them on fire.”
Elishba Alamgir, 20, frantically called her father at about 6 p.m. and told him men were trying to enter the house, which had become a target because it was in front of Faisal’s house. “My daughter and son were alone at home when this attack took place,” said the father, Chaudhry Alamgir, Vice President of the Minority Wing of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (Lahore Chapter).
By 8 p.m., “the number swelled to about 2000 or more,” Pastor Malik said. “Then the mobs started breaking into several houses and looting, as well. They were trying to break doors and shouting at us in abusive language.”
A Punjab provincial Minister, Rana Mashhood Ahmed Khan, and Muhammad Usman, head of the district civil authority, asked Punjab provincial Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif to dispatch two contingents of Pakistan Rangers, a paramilitary force that provides border and internal security during peacetime, to the area to help disperse the mob.
Police lobbed canisters of tear gas among the protesters, and then charged into the crowd with batons. The Sandha Police Station registered a case against 48 people, charging them under Pakistan’s anti-terrorism law. With the rangers in place, the crowd dispersed and the situation was under control by about 10 p.m.
Pakistan’s national and provincial authorities have not always ordered a prompt police response to religiously motivated violence. This time it was different.
“Religion is a sensitive matter for us, but no such lawlessness can be allowed to rule the country,” police leader Ashraf said. “We were trying to negotiate with the protesters, but they were getting out of control and making inhumane demands. Those who instigated them had fled from the scene after realizing the gravity of the situation. Then we called in newly-inducted riot police and reserves to charge the mob.”
Why the change in response? “Enough is enough,” Ashraf said. “Such incidents tarnish the image of our country. The Zimbabwean cricket team was touring the country and we could not afford any disturbance like this.”
Source: World Watch Monitor
Father, our hearts reach out to Pakistani Christians who live in fear of retaliation and unjust accusations that can lead to violence in the whole community. We pray for Faisal as he awaits trial; that Your Spirit would draw him close to You and calm his mind. We pray for peaceful relations between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan. We pray for the repeal of the anti-blasphemy laws, especially for the way they are used unjustly to settle land disputes. We pray for the Christians in Pakistan; that You would strengthen them in faith and in the knowledge of Your Word, that You would teach them how to respond to the violence in godly ways with both compassion and boldness. And we pray for the many in Pakistan who live in spiritual darkness; that You would draw them into faith and the light of Christ. In the Name of Jesus whose life, death and resurrection overcomes the power of sin that we might be called the children of God, Amen.