(CLOCKWISE): The screengrab shows people looking on as smoke rises from a church building in Jaranwala, which was attacked by an angry mob over blasphemy allegations on Wednesday; view of another church that was set on fire on the outskirts of Faisalabad; and, security personnel arrive at one of the scenes of vandalism in Jaranwala.—Reuters / AFP / PPI
(CLOCKWISE): The screengrab shows people looking on as smoke rises from a church building in Jaranwala, which was attacked by an angry mob over blasphemy allegations on Wednesday; view of another church that was set on fire on the outskirts of Faisalabad; and, security personnel arrive at one of the scenes of vandalism in Jaranwala.—Reuters / AFP / PPI

• Violence stoked by rumours of alleged desecration of holy book, relayed through mosque announcements
• FIR registered under blasphemy charges, no case against mob so far
• Section 144 imposed; Rangers called in to avert further violence

LAHORE / TOBA TEK SINGH: A violent mob of hundreds ransacked and torched five churches, attacked the residences of members of the Christian community and the office of the local assistant commissioner, following an alleged incident of blasphemy in Jaranwala town of Faisalabad district, on Wednesday.

The district administration has imposed section 144 for seven days, prohibiting all kinds of assembly, except for events organised by the government. Meanwhile, the Punjab government has issued directions to form a high-level inquiry committee to investigate the incident, in line with orders issued by the caretaker prime minister.

As per police and local sources, the violence erupted after some locals alleged that several desecrated pages of the Holy Quran had been found near a house at Cinema Chowk in Jaranwala, where two Christian brothers resided.

Rumours of the alleged act spread like wildfire across Jaranwala after those who had levelled the allegations appro­ached different mosques, from where announcements were made to incite people to show their “reaction” to the incident.

As per local sources, the situation became more volatile when members of the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) entered the fray, making public announcements from mosques and other places, riling up people to reach the site of the alleged incident. Soon, a mob gathered outside the house of the two men – who had evacuated by then – and set it on fire, sparking a spate of violent incidents.

Following this incident, people started gathering in Jaranwala town, turning into an enraged mob that allegedly attacked two churches — one Catholic and the other belonging to the Salvation Army. The mob also attacked and burnt a number of Christian homes in two nearby localities, near Chak 127-GB on the main City Road and near Chak 126-GB, Bridge Colony, along Shahrwana Canal – also known as Christian Colony.

Meanwhile, Christian community leaders said the mob also torched three other churches and looted valuables from the houses that had been abandoned by their owners, fearing violence.

Jaranwala pastor Imran Bhatti said the mob ransacked and burnt a total of five churches in the area, including the United Presbyterian Church, Allied Foundation Church and Shehroonwala Church situated in Isa Nagri. He said the attackers even didn’t spare a local Christian graveyard, where graves were vandalized and a portion of its boundary wall demolished.

Video clips and photos shared on social media showed flames and smoke billowing from some church buildings, people setting fire to furniture and removing the symbol of the crucifix from a church building.

A mob also attacked and ransacked the office of Jaranwala Assistant Commissioner Shaukat Masih, who had had already left when the mob arrived.

A group of protesters also blocked Faisalabad-Abdul Hakeem M-III motorway at Jaranwala interchange for traffic.

Christian leaders strongly condemned what they called police inaction during the whole episode. They alleged that police played the role of silent spectators when Christian families were crying for help, and delayed their response until the residents were forced to abandon their houses, leaving them at the mercy of the attackers.

Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Secretary Zahid Akhtar Zaman and Inspector General of Police (IGP) Dr Usman Anwar also reached Jaranwala to monitor the situation. The officers held a meeting with the Aman Committee members and other locally influential religious and political parties’ leaders to engage the protesters.

The Punjab government then called in the Rangers who assumed control of the troubled areas to avert any further violence. The provincial administration issued a high-alert following the incident, while the IGP deployed 3,000 police personnel from various police units, including the Elite Force.

Faisalabad Regional Police Officer Dr Abid Ali Khan and City Police Officer Usman Akram Gondal held negotiations with the leaders of the protesters and told them that an FIR has been registered under sections 295C and 295B of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) on the complaint of City Police SHO Mansoor Sadiq.

According to the FIR, the two suspects allegedly desecrated the Holy Quran and wrote blasphemous text on its pages.

President Bishop of the Church of Pakistan Azad Marshall condemned the violence, saying the copies of Bible were burnt and desecrated, members of the Christian community tortured and harassed after being “falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran.”

Some activists on social media lashed out at the Punjab police for allegedly showing discrimination, as a blasphemy case was launched against the Christian suspects, but no FIR was registered against those who ransacked churches and attacked the house of the members of a minority community.

Following the incidents of violence, the Punjab government removed Jaranwala AC Shaukat Masih from his post and made him an officer on special duty (OSD). Sources said the AC, who is also a Christian, was made OSD to pacify the violent protesters who were pressing the government to immediately transfer the officer.

Published in Dawn, August 17th, 2023

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