Over 19 churches and 80 Christian homes were vandalised by an angry mob reacting to an alleged incident of blasphemy in Jaranwala, a town in Faisalabad, Punjab province, on August 16. The violence started when some residents claimed to have discovered desecrated pages of the Holy Quran near a Christian residence at a movie theatre in Jaranwala.
The situation escalated just days after Pakistan celebrated National Minority Day, which is meant to support those belonging to religious, linguistic, national or ethnic minority groups. Police have arrested two Christians over the Koran desecration and also arrested over 100 people in relation to the violence. In total, police registered two cases naming 37 suspects and over 600 unnamed assailants.
On social media, people watched in horror, condemned the perpetrators and demanded the state immediately take action against them. The hashtag #Jaranwala started trending on X (formerly known as Twitter).
Bishop Azad Marshall, Moderator Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, posted on X:
Words fail me as I write this. We, Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan. A church building is being burnt as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been… pic.twitter.com/xruE83NPXL
— Bishop Azad Marshall (@BishopAzadM) August 16, 2023
Journalist Veengas reported:
The mob attacked a Christian family and set fire to Church over the alleged blasphemy in Jaranwala, Faisalabad. Christian community is already living in fear, now another horrible attack on them.
Christians and Hindus are not safe. pic.twitter.com/rHB5MGaQu4
— Veengas (@VeengasJ) August 16, 2023
Currently, Pakistan does not have an elected government as the national assembly was dissolved on August 9, 2023, to pave the way for the elections and is being run by an interim caretaker government. Chief Minister of Punjab Mohsin Naqvi promised to restore the damaged area shortly and to compensate the families for their losses.
As soon as the news of the desecration of the Holy Quran spread on August 16, the loudspeakers of the town's mosques were used to incite people to come out and seek revenge, causing a violent mob of over a thousand people to barge into the Christian Colony and created havoc in Jaranwala. They demanded the police arrest the accused or hand him over to them. Paramilitary troops were called in to bring the situation under control.
To save their lives, residents fled their homes, leaving behind their belongings, and found shelter in nearby fields. Amid this chaos, the police forces remained silent spectators and took no action to stop the mob.
Freelance Journalist Sarah Eleazar visited the victims and posted on X:
I visited the neighborhoods with my parents. Needless to say it was an emotional experience, and this article is a labor of love.
Jaranwala residents had little to begin with — the violent mob took away their hope too https://t.co/yYBGuq0sHN
— Sarah Eleazar (@SarahEleazar) August 21, 2023
This isn't the first time minority communities have been attacked in Pakistan. Often the violence can be traced back to British colonial-era blasphemy laws.
In 1860, the British colonial rulers of the sub-continent introduced blasphemy laws to end Hindu-Muslim violence. Over the years, the laws have been strengthened to criminalize offences that are “antithetical” to so-called Muslim values. Since the reinforcement of these laws, they have been misused over the years, leading to devastation in numerous communities.
Attacks on minority communities
Minority communities constitute only 4 percent of Pakistan's population out of which 1.3% are Christian groups. Many of these groups have faced persecution in alleged blasphemy cases for decades, and the state has not been much help. While the police could not offer substantial protection, they have occasionally alerted these communities before an impending attack, allowing them to evacuate the area. The list of attacks on the Christian communities is long, encompassing significant incidents like Shanti Nagar (1997), Sangla Hill (2005), Gojra incident (2009), Joseph Colony (2013), Quetta Church blast (2017), and now Jaranwala 2023.
The attacks on Ahmadiyya Community are more focused on individuals and have been taking place for years. Since the extremist group Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) came into existence in 2015, the desecration of Ahmadiyya graves and minarets has increased. As the November 2023 general elections draw nearer, the TLP is becoming fiercer in spreading its far-right narrative.
Amir Mahmood, a spokesperson of the Ahmadiya community, says:
In just this year 2023 , there were 18 incidents of attacks on the places of worship of the Ahmadiyya Jamaat, in which minar and mihrab were destroyed. The police were complicit with the extremist elements instead of protecting the Ahmadi worship places. https://t.co/nDK8WPLIMs
— AmirMahmood (@IamAmirMahmood) August 19, 2023
The Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) has reported that from 1947 to 2021, Over 1,400 people have faced accusations of blasphemy, resulting in 89 deaths. Meanwhile, the Centre for Social Justice, renowned for its compilation of data on blasphemy cases, has noted that between January 1 to August 16, 2023, 198 people have been accused of blasphemy — 85 percent Muslims, 9 percent Ahmadis, and 4.4 percent Christians. This number represents a significant increase, as between 1987 and 2022, at least 2,120 persons were accused of committing blasphemy in Pakistan.
In April 2021, Imran Khan‘s government imposed a ban on Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) for holding violent protests following the arrest of their leader. Later in November of the same year, TLP orchestrated aggressive anti-France demonstrations and organised a march towards the capital Islamabad, resulting in the deaths of seven of their supporters. To stop them from holding Islamabad hostage once again, the government lifted the ban in the “larger national interest”. In June 2023, TLP started a “Save Pakistan March” from Karachi to Islamabad. To stop them from reaching the capital, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Sardar Ayaz Sadiq engaged in negotiations with TLP leaders and eventually signed a 12-point agreement. Among the terms outlined were the assurance of expedited trials for individuals accused of blasphemy and prompt decisions on appeals filed by those awarded punishments by the courts.
Azaz Syed, a Pakistani journalist, shares the agreement:
.Govt and #TLP sign a 12 point agreement. It also include agreeing to impose additional anti terrorism act clauses to all those who get arrested on the charges of blasphemy. Interior Minister @RanaSanaullahPK and Fed Minister Ayaz Sadiq sign it. pic.twitter.com/nJewUXjut0
— Azaz Syed (@AzazSyed) June 17, 2023
After the Gojra incident in 2009, a tribunal was set up that recommended reviewing five provisions of the blasphemy law which relate to Islam. Additionally, in 2014, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Tasadduq Hussain Jillani took suo moto notice of the All Saint’s Church blast in Peshawar in 2013 and directed the state to provide protection to minorities and their places of worship. According to Article 25 of the Constitution, “all citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law”, however, the practical implementation of this principle remains unrealized. It has been nine years since the order was given, yet Pakistan's minority communities still await its enforcement.