Beenish Masih bursts into tears as she describes her family’s ordeal in Essa Nagri during the mob violence.—M. Arif / White Star
Beenish Masih bursts into tears as she describes her family’s ordeal in Essa Nagri during the mob violence.—M. Arif / White Star

“WE were all still sleeping when the announcements were made in mosque loudspeakers at about 5am, inciting the people against us (Christians). As soon as we heard the announcements, we ran for our lives,” Parveen Bibi tells Dawn in between sobs.

Her house was situated behind the Catholic Church — one of the oldest churches in the Christian Colony of Jaranwala — in a dingy street. Now this church lies in ruins.

With only a few benches left in furniture, its walls have turned black due to smoke. Outside, burnt furniture and electronics can be seen as the smell of burnt plastic and wood permeates the air. Heaps of burnt items showed the scale of hell that broke loose on Wednesday.

Parveen Bibi was among many residents who had returned to take stock of the destruction. She is reeling from the shock, cursing the attackers: “I had sent my kids to the relatives in Faisalabad while I took shelter in a house some streets away. My children are still not back.”

Fear, smell of burnt plastic and metal hang over neighbourhood; resident says 25 places of worship ransacked; valuables burnt, looted

The same was the fate of other houses. Ghulam Masih, a municipality worker, lived a couple of streets away from Catholic Church. Both storeys of his house had been completely reduced to ashes.

Smoke was still coming out of the upper storey and the stench of burning plastic and metal filled the air. Mr Masih’s father stood there, weeping. I could not stand there any longer because my eyes had started hurting due to smoke.

Mr Masih told Dawn he had left for work at 6am. “Soon my family called to tell me about the developing situation…[and] asked me to go to my in-laws in a village. They also went there.” His friends told him miscreants ransacked his home at 10 or 11pm and took away valuables. “They returned at about 1pm and burnt it down…[with] some chemical.” They took away a 42-inch LCD and burnt my new fridge, he told Dawn.

I walked around the city which presented a deserted look, with police and paramilitary personnel standing guard. Signs of mob violence — burnt tires and remains of fire — dotted the landscape.

Arslan Abid, a Muslim resident of Christian Town, said the mobs were not from the area. They looked like ‘village boys and young men’, he claimed and added the police were too few to stop the mob.

Some Christians found refuge with their Muslim neighbours, however. Pastor Javed Bhatti told AFP local Muslims tried to save them. Tariq Rasool, in the same narrow street as Pastor Bhatti, said Muslims had quickly pinned Quranic verses on the doors of Christian homes in the hope they would be spared.

“Two women were running. I opened the door of my house for them and let them inside. They were very worried but I consoled them…They are still inside…[and] spent the night with us,” Imran Qadri, 58, told AFP.

Arif Masih, whose house was gutted in the fire, told Dawn, “They [mob] had metal rods, incendiary chemicals, and matches… it seemed they had already planned to loot the houses.” Mr Masih also lost his shop.

‘Charred’ Essa Nagri

The United Presbyterian (UP) Church in Essa Nagri near the Gogera Branch Canal also bore the brunt of attacks. The boundary wall facing the main road was torn down by the attackers who invaded the premises before storming the gate. The building presented a charred look.

The pastor’s house in front of the church was not spared either. The miscreants did not even leave behind the handle of a hand pump installed in the courtyard. Clothes on the washing line were still hanging, showing the departure of its occupants was sudden. All household items, including half-burnt quilts, were scattered in the compound.

About four to five streets around the church were housed by Christians. One of the houses completely burnt belonged to three brothers, including Waqar, 30. Waqar told Dawn the attackers first searched the house, stole gold ornaments as well as wheat, and then burnt it down.

Waqar’s family tilled other people’s lands for livelihood. “We spent the night in fields without food or water,” he said, adding that he and his brothers returned to take stock of the situation in the morning and to see if they could bring their children back. “But we have nothing left behind to bring our families back to,” Waqar lamented.

‘Over 25 churches gone’

Besides the UP Church, Essa Nagri had two more churches that were burnt by the mobs. One of them was All Evangel Covenant Church.

Azeem, the pastor’s son, showed me around. The small church facing the canal had been completely burnt from the inside, though its structure was still standing. “We had heard about the attacks in the morning but they started moving towards Essa Nagri later on. The police came to our home situated along the church and asked us to move out. We did that to save our lives. Our church was attacked around noon.”

Azeem said the miscreants burnt Catholic Church, then Salvation Army Church first, and later the UP and All Evangel Covenant Church. He claimed that about 25 big and small churches were attacked in Jaranwala tehsil, but many of the incidents remained unreported.

“Four churches were burnt in Noora Colony, three in Mohranwala, two in Aik Bees Wali Aabadi, five in Shehruanawala and Kamuana, one in village Dhebian in Chak 55.”

According to Azeem, the attacks continued throughout the day on Wednesday and the attackers burnt the church at Chakoo Morr at 8pm.

I visited three burnt churches in the close vicinity of Essa Nagri; six in total. A small church between the UP Church and All Evangel Covenant Church was completely destroyed. An iron bed used in funeral processions was the sole item left.

Published in Dawn, August 18th, 2023

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