‘We cry out for justice’: Vandalism of churches in Faisalabad elicits condemnations, calls for action

After images of vandalised churches were shared on social media, initial shock and horror were followed by demands for justice.
Published August 16, 2023

It was a dark day for Pakistan on Wednesday when multiple churches in Faisalabad’s Jaranwala were set alight.

The vandalism, it has been alleged, was prompted by an act of blasphemy. However, it is yet to be seen if there is any truth to these allegations.

Meanwhile, the reality unfolding before the nation and the rest of the world is the image of crowds of people armed with sticks and rocks storming through the streets, with smoke rising from church buildings.

As these scenes circulated on social media, the initial shock and horror were followed by condemnations and calls for action.

“We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland that has just celebrated independence and freedom,” President Bishop of the Church of Pakistan Azad Marshall wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

He added that all priests and bishops, as well as others, were “deeply pained and distressed” by the incident.

According to Bishop Marshall, Bibles were desecrated and Christians were tortured and harassed during the episode after they were “falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran”.

Hours later, newly appointed interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar, who said he was gutted by visuals from Jaranwala, posted on X that stern action would be taken against those who violate the law and target minorities.

“All law enforcement has been asked to apprehend culprits and bring them to justice,” he said, adding that the government stood with “our citizenry on an equal basis”.

His immediate predecessor and PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif also issued a condemnation.

The former prime minister said the Christian community had shed blood and voted for the formation of Pakistan, asserting that their sacrifices should not go in vain.

“Strict actions should be taken against those who violated the law,” he demanded, stressing that neither Islam nor the Constitution permitted such acts of vandalism.

He also urged scholars and religious leaders to condemn such incidents, which the former premier said were against the teachings of the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

Shehbaz demanded that the Punjab government take immediate measures and restore the vandalised churches and homes of the Christian community.

“Once again the memory of the May 9 tragedy has become fresh, the head of the nation has bowed in shame,” he added.

Separately in a post on X, he emphasised that there was no place for violence in any religion. “All religious places, books and personages are sacred and deserve our highest level of respect,” he said, adding that “such madness cannot be allowed”.

In its condemnation, the PTI expressed regret over the attack on minorities and held the administration, “state machinery” and police responsible for the incident.

“The basic duty of the state is to protect the safety of life and property of citizens without discrimination of colour, race, sex and religion,” it said and demanded that the Punjab government investigate the events from all aspects.

Meanwhile, former human rights minister and ex-PTI leader Shireen Mazari termed the incident “absolutely shameful and condemnable”.

“Where are the law enforcers to protect our Christian community and their churches?” she questioned.

Former interior minister Rana Sanaullah also condemned the “dastardly attack” and stressed that the culprits should be brought to justice at the earliest.

“Extremism and hatred nullify the fundamental principles of Islam,” he said.

For his part, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari was “horrified” to hear about the attack and underlined that violating the sanctity of places of worship was “absolutely unacceptable”.

“The administration must ensure the safety of the Christian community and their churches,” he stressed.

Former information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said in a statement that the incident was a cause of “grief” and “shame for the entire nation”. She, too, urged the Punjab government to take immediate notice of it and “bring those who took the law into their hands to justice”.

Aurangzeb apologised to the Christian community and expressed her solidarity with them, saying that “such incidents tarnished Pakistan’s image on the international level”.

As for PPP leader and ex-climate change minister Sherry Rehman, the incident was “tragic, terrible [and] reprehensible on so many levels”.

“Pakistan’s non-Muslim citizens are entitled to the same justice, protections and rights we all are.

“Our religion, our Constitution finds no space for such violent exclusions and desecrations of what any community holds sacred,” she posted on X.

Former senator Afrasiab Khattak said in his condemnation that the “Pakistani state has failed to provide security to the worship places of people who follow religions other than Islam. Impunity to the crimes committed in the name of religion has emboldened extremists and terrorists”.

Balochistan Senator Sarfaraz Bughti also called on the Punjab government to enforce its full might to protect churches and Christian hope.

“We, as Pakistani, can’t allow the madness happening in Jaranwala,” he said. “We have a responsibility toward the minorities in our country, and we couldn’t let the crisis worsen any further!” Bughti added.

Activist and lawyer Jibran Nasir criticised the incident, stating that what occurred in Jaranwala went beyond being a mere cause for sorrow; it was “a reason for national shame.”

Responding to PM Kakar’s condemnation, Nasir pointed out that an entire community had been “terrorised” today, with no available elected representatives at local, provincial, or national levels for people to approach and voice their concerns.

Emphasising the necessity of timely elections, Nasir highlighted that elected representatives not only offer solace to their constituents but also wield their authority to ensure safety and justice, being accountable to the people for their votes.

Meanwhile, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) maintained that the “mob-led assault on Christian families, their homes and sites of worship in Jaranwala” must be condemned in “no uncertain terms”.

“The frequency and scale of such attacks — which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable — appear to have increased in recent years. Not only has the state failed to protect its religious minorities, but it has also allowed the far right to permeate and fester within society and politics,” it highlighted.

HRCP demanded that the perpetrators and instigators of the violence should be identified and punished to the “full extent of the law”.

“The government must waste no time in raising and equipping special police forces to protect religious minorities’ sites of worship,” it added.

Amnesty International further conveyed its distress over the incident, expressing, “We are extremely concerned at the reports of arson and attacks on at least five churches and multiple Christian homes in Jaranwala following blasphemy accusations against two Christian men.”

Amnesty highlighted that blasphemy laws “contravene the right to life, freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, as well as the liberty of opinion and expression.”

It stressed that these laws should not serve as tools to target and defame individuals, inflict significant property damage, or displace entire communities.

Separately, a joint statement issued by the Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) and International Interfaith Harmony Council (IIHC) quoted PUC Chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi as saying that religious leaders actively engaged with the community to stabilise the situation and foster an environment of understanding.

“The leadership of PUC and IIHC underscored the shared responsibility of safeguarding worship places and residences of all communities,” the statement added.

Header image: People outside a burnt church on the outskirts of Faisalabad on August 16 following an attack by a mob. — AFP