Jaranwala residents had little to begin with — the violent mob took away their hope too

The most destructive members of the mob were children aged 10 to 15 years, says a resident. “I have never been this scared of children.”
Published August 21, 2023

It’s Friday afternoon, August 18, two days after dozens of Christian homes and 19 churches in various neighbourhoods and villages of Faisalabad’s Jaranwala tehsil were vandalised and burned down by a mob over blasphemy allegations.

Sayedwala Road, which cuts through Jaranwala city is lined with rows of prison vans and police vehicles. Law enforcement agencies are on high alert in surrounding cities, including Faisalabad, where most residents of Jaranwala had fled ahead of the attacks on their homes. They say they are expecting another mob attack after Friday prayers.

Inside Jaranwala, the road leading from Sayedwala Road to Cinema Chowk is blocked with barbed wire and all entrances leading to the roundabout have been cordoned off. The alleged blasphemy incident occurred at Cinema Chowk, a few hundred meters from Jamia Masjid Mahtab, where the prayer leader made announcements, inciting the violence that followed.

Additional police contingents from Faisalabad and Rescue-1122 fire engines dot all road entrances from Christian Town to Essa Nagri in Chak 127 on the fringes of Gogera Bank Canal, around two kilometres away, all the way to the Parish House, a further 2kms away.

In the street next to Jamia Masjid Mahtab, two to three homes out of many are reduced to ashes. Here, a man sits outside his burned house on a chair and his neighbour, a woman, stands on the footsteps leading to hers. “Someone knocked on my door early in the morning and said everyone in Christian Town has left because of an impending attack and you need to hurry,” she says, reminiscing the ordeal matter-of-factly.

The blasphemy suspects were residents of Christian Town, a crisscross maze of narrow streets and no sewage system, a few blocks behind Jamia Masjid Mahtab and adjacent to Chammra Mandi (leather market). An adjoining street carries a makeshift banner with the slogan of Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan.

 A makeshift banner of the TLP hangs in a street adjacent to Christian Town. All photos by author
A makeshift banner of the TLP hangs in a street adjacent to Christian Town. All photos by author

Tents and barbed wire secure the perimeters of the streets where the suspects lived and if those weren’t enough, policemen wade through overflowing gutter water to turn people away from the place. All the homes in those streets are almost burnt to ashes. But in the street next to the mosque where the lady lives, someone had to identify for the mob which of those homes belonged to Christian families.

Pointing at her neighbour sitting outside his burned house, she says they only returned Friday morning at around 10am because officials of the building department were supposed to visit their homes to estimate damages.

 Valuables stolen from a trunk inside a home in Essa Nagri.
Valuables stolen from a trunk inside a home in Essa Nagri.

The Punjab government is considering an offer of recompense for damages between Rs200,000 and Rs1 million, depending on the scale of the damage. On Friday, building department officials began visiting homes in various neighbourhoods to begin to devise a mechanism to estimate damages. “We will measure the size of these houses and arrive at an estimate based on what we can see,” said a building official, making the rounds in Essa Nagri.

Irreplaceable losses

In Essa Nagri, a member or two of each house that was torched also sit on chairs waiting for the inspection teams to arrive. In this neighbourhood, the boundary wall of the United Presbyterian Church, whose pink walls with painted Christmas ornaments still emanate heat, were broken down using hammers and set alight. The church leads into an extremely narrow street littered with the burned frames of cycles, furniture, and refrigerators.

The first house on the right belongs to Allah Ditta and his mother. The 30-year-old was employed as a gardener at Jaranwala Assistant Commissioner Shaukat Masih’s home, who had to flee himself. Allah Ditta says his house was targeted because people in the vicinity knew of his employment. His mother walks me through the ransacked and burnt down rooms, but especially asks me to see the roof.

 Broken furniture inside a room in Allah Ditta’s home.
Broken furniture inside a room in Allah Ditta’s home.

 Iron girders of the roof have melted to the ground inside a home that was vandalised by the mob.
Iron girders of the roof have melted to the ground inside a home that was vandalised by the mob.

“My special needs son lived here,” she says, pointing at the scorched remains of a once bedroom. The iron girders of the roof have melted and fused with the floor. Charred remains of her son’s pigeons litter the ground. “They burned his pigeons,” she says, offering no other explanation.

A few paces from her house, another resident, Sarfaraz Emmanuel Paul, stands outside his home surrounded by video loggers and journalists who want to film his burned down house and record his interview. His mother was a Sunday School teacher and in one of the rooms that was completely burned down, her Sunday School materials and hymn books were ripped apart and set on fire.

As I walk through the streets, a couple sitting outside their home recognise me and call me over. They were members of our church once and had used all their retirement funds to move to Essa Nagri a few years ago to start a small prayer ministry. Their home, to the left of Pastor Saleem Arif’s All Evangelical Covenant Church near Gogera Branch Canal, was looted and burned to the ground. The pastor’s own home, on top of the church, was also looted and burned.

The story is the same in every street of Essa Nagri as visitors — journalists, government officials, neighbours, NGO workers and members of the clergy — hug and cry with the residents, most of whom have returned that day and are seemingly apoplectic with shock.

‘Indescribable scenes’

Shahbaz Samuel Francis Masih, an elder (position of authority in church hierarchy) at the Catholic Church, describes how the violence played out in his street. According to him, Father Khalid Mukhtar called him and asked him to tell people to leave. He oversaw the exodus and sent those who couldn’t leave into nearby sugarcane fields.

He points at an ‘alam’ (a black flag marking Shia place of residence) erected at a house in the distance. “I ran to my neighbour’s house and asked them to protect me, and I watched the whole thing from the rooftop.”

 A room inside the pastor’s house at the All Evangelical Covenant Church.
A room inside the pastor’s house at the All Evangelical Covenant Church.

There were 15 to 20 policemen on duty in front of the Gogera Branch Canal entrance at around 10am when the mob arrived. “Trawlers full of young men stopped at the entrance and they swarmed out. I had never seen so many people in these streets … there were thousands,” says Shahbaz.

They went into the UP Church and pulled out Bibles and burned them on the roads first. After the church, they moved to the homes, first breaking the locks, entering, and taking out valuables. Then they would hurl a red chemical in a bottle on the rooftops and then climb up on the roof using hammers to bring it all down.

Other pastors, who have by now gathered around us and have witnessed mass burnings in Shanti Nagar and Gojra before, chip in that this chemical had been used there too. No one knows the name of the red chemical or where it might be sold, however, a chemical that is strong enough to melt through iron girders is not sold at the corner general store, they point out. Perhaps a large quantity of corrosive chemical is missing from a factory and should be investigated.

The most destructive members of the mob were children aged 10 to 15 years, says Shahbaz. “I have never been this scared of children.” They would move through homes like they were trained to do this very thing, he adds.

Dazed and confused

Nearly all the people who have returned to their homes to assess the damages are in a state of shock and unable to provide a clear timeline of how the events unfolded.

Apart from the sheer horror of watching people loot and burn homes while the police stood around, most people raised pertinent questions: how could a mob equipped with torches, sledgehammers and corrosive chemicals assemble so fast? Who were the children and men in trawlers brought to these neighbourhoods; and who told them which homes to burn? And finally, how can collective punishment occur in such a targeted and destructive manner without any interference from the authorities?

They insist that the men accused of blasphemy had actually owed money to a big lender.

 The mob ripped apart hymn books and set them on fire at the Sunday school.
The mob ripped apart hymn books and set them on fire at the Sunday school.

 The Sunday School teacher’s room where she held classes and prayer meetings.
The Sunday School teacher’s room where she held classes and prayer meetings.

On my visit to the Catholic Church, I find that Father Khalid Mukhtar has fallen ill and left for Faisalabad; his residence at the Parish was also looted and burned.

Speaking over the phone, Father Mukhtar says the alleged blasphemy act took place at around 5am when two women walking around Cinema Chowk came across a picture of two suspects with their names, CNIC and addresses, together with pages of the Holy Quran that had been crossed out with a red pen. The women went to the suspects and brought them to the chowk to show them the pages. The men took the pages and went home. Slowly a mob started gathering and they marched to the men’s home and demanded to see the pages.

“I arrived at Christian Town at around 6:30am and met the maulana and SP, and we spoke,” he said. Nevertheless, the violence began at around 9am. The priest made several urgent calls to his parish throughout the city imploring them to flee. The assistant commissioner of Jaranwala, a Christian by faith, was also forced to flee.

Method to the madness

Most Christian residents, from Christian Town near Chammra Market to Chak 127 Essa Nagri, are employed as sweepers in the municipal corporation, but also work in factories, shops and so on. They live in working class neighborhoods with very little amenities and poor infrastructure.

This is the first time something like this has happened in Jaranwala, church elder Shahbaz insists. Other Christian pastors and people who were visiting to offer condolences, however, point out that Jaranwala is the latest among many towns and neighbourhoods in Faisalabad division that have experienced such violence.

In 2009, a mob burned down 60 homes and killed seven people over similar allegations in Gojra district, 74kms away from Jaranwala. At the same time, Chak 424 was threatened, and its residents had to flee.

Khushpur village, located 70kms away from Jaranwala, is the village of the late Bishop John Joseph who shot himself on the steps of a court protest against the blasphemy law in 1998.

Also located 40kms from Jaranwala is Warispura, where two Christian brothers were shot dead over blasphemy allegations in 2010. The same town was emptied of Christian families briefly in 2018 as well after another round of blasphemy allegations.

Last week’s events in Jaranwala were just the latest in a series of violent incidents propagated to persecute a minority that has little to begin with and even less to hope for. Meanwhile, the state’s repeated failure to prosecute those responsible for these crimes inspires little confidence among the community.

As residents of Jaranwala pick up the pieces of what remains of their lives, there is little doubt that the horrors of August 16 will haunt them for generations. And while monetary compensation may ease some financial burden, one can only hope that the state finally realises its promise to its most vulnerable citizens — the protection of life and property guaranteed to all, irrespective of faith, caste or status.

Header image: A police officer walks past the belongings of residents along a street in a Christian neighbourhood, a day after the church buildings and houses were vandalised by a mob in Jaranwala. — Reuters