September 15, 2023
By Xari Jalil
Blasphemy cases have been on the rise in recent years, but according to data compiled, a fresh wave of violence was observed in 2023, as political parties are bracing to enter the electoral race for the next parliamentary tenure.
According to the date compiled by Center for Social Justice (CSJ),
Between 1997 and 2016, there were 51 attacks on Christian settlements and churches, including 15 terrorist attacks while the other two were attacks by mobs and individuals. As a result, 69 churches were desecrated and over 900 hundreds of houses damaged. At least 138 Christians lost their lives, in addition to 23 Christians killed in connection with blasphemy allegations extra judicially and hundreds of people were injured in these attacks.
Between 2016 and 2023 attacks were also reported on Hindu and Ahmadi places of worship a number of times in various parts of the country.
At a recent public inquiry held by the CSJ regarding an increase in religion based violence, Peter Jacob demanded a fair and impartial investigation in all cases involving blasphemy accusations. He specified that a one-sided impression is created about the minorities being involved in the blasphemy which is peddled by the extremist outfits. He said that this impression was impacting relations between the majority and minority religious communities.
At the public inquiry, CSJ presented 13 case studies of violence across Punjab which called the attention of the administration and the public.
Besides Christians and Ahmadis, the Shia community was also targeted under Sections 298 and 298 A against them.
Much before the Jaranwala incident, Sargodha city and surrounding villages saw unrest after recurring complaints registered under blasphemy laws since June 30, 2023.
In particular, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan and other organizations have been regularly campaigning against allegedly ‘blasphemers’. Because of this campaigning, dozens of Christians were arrested even though most were released later.
In some of the cases, the families of the people arrested were afraid to report arrests or engage in litigation while a continuous hatred campaign by the religious outfits created scare.
Sargodha Case 1
On 11 May 2023, Naeem Abbas, an employee of tehsil headquarter hospital (THQ), Silanwali in district Sargodha was accused of insulting the name of Hazrat Abu Bakar (RA), the first Caliph of Islam, under 295-A & 298-A, PPC. The accused was reportedly arrested.
Sargodha Case 2
On 30 June 2023, after Friday prayers, about 10 Christian households of Chak 49 Northern, adjacent to Sargodha city, were attacked by mostly, their neighbors. A Christian named Haroon Shahzad was accused of posted a verse of the Bible on his Facebook account which disapproved animal sacrifice. The attack made Christian residents panic and abandon their homes.
Details: Haroon Shahzad, aged 36, a father of four, is a house painter by profession. His family of nine members, including his brothers and sisters lived near the village mosque. The complainant, Imran Ullah, also a resident of the village, is also known as Don. Imran reportedly had a personal vendetta with the Haroon Shahzad, which led to false accusations against him.
The FIR #615/23 under Section 295-A PPC was filed around 4:25 p.m. at the Cantonment Police Station, Sargodha. The complainant alleged that on 8 June 2023, Haroon Shahzad posted the derogatory content (a verse from the Bible). As of now, the accused is detained, initially he was granted a release on bail which was later revoked by the magistrate. Initially, the police also detained two women and four men from his family.
Sargodha Case 3: Zaki Masih of Chak 98 Northern shared a government-initiated public service message against corruption on his Facebook account. The message emphasized the prohibition of corruption according to the teachings of Islam, along with a Quranic verse. However, the FIR did not mention the actual text of post but an interpretation of the shared post which was far apart from the text. According to the FIR, the complainants warned the accused, Zaki, and asked him to delete the content which, he refused. The police filed an FIR #684/23 under Article 295-A on 8 July 2023, without an investigation.
Sargodha Case 4: In Green Town, Sargodha is predominantly Muslims settlement, while adjacent Maryam Town is populated by mostly Christians. After Fajr prayers on 16 July 2023 announcements were made from the mosque urging people to gather and prepare for an attack on Maryam Town. The announcements claimed that some Christian from Maryam Town had displayed a poster that carried offensive remark against Muslims/ Islam.
The news spread and the Christians in Maryam Town fled their homes for safety. Meanwhile, the police were deployed in the locality to control situation and registered an FIR #856/23 under Section 295-A PPC against the unknown culprit.
TLP staged a protest, issuing an ultimatum of 48 hours for the arrest of the individuals responsible. Later police was deployed in Maryam Town.
Sargodha Case 5: Sunday, August 20, 2023, at Chak 36, on Kandiwal Road, near Sargodha city. Some worshipers said that while leaving the mosque they discovered a shopping bag filled with torn and burnt pages of Quran, placed against the wall of the priest’s house at the Catholic Church. A note was attached with it that referred to the Jaranwala incident that occurred on August 16, 2023. The news spread rapidly, and people started gathering in the area, while the Christians panicked and fled their homes. The police controlled the situation and registered FIR # 454/23 under section 295-B, PPC against the unknown culprits.
Sargodha Case 6:
On 25 August 2023, in Chak 37 SB announcements were made through the mosque’s loudspeaker, claiming that the Holy Quran had been burnt and urged people to gather around the mosque. The crowd expressed anger towards the Christians, and the residents informed the police. The police controlled the crowd by promising action.
The police registered an FIR #464/23 under section 295-B PPC against the unknown accused.
On Sunday, 27 August, 2023, TLP called upon its supporters from the Sargodha division to stage a protest in Sargodha city, demanding the arrest of the culprits. The police arrested Zimran George (33), the son of George Masih, a teacher and his friend Akash Karamat (17).
Sargodha Case 7: On 3 July 2023 police in Moaza Baryana, Sargodha registered An FIR#314/23 against Azhar Abbas under Section 298, 298A, PPC. He was accused of sharing objectionable posts on Facebook, disrespecting the third Caliphs of Islam.
Sargodha Case 8: Molana Muhammad Nouman registered an FIR # 991/23 on 8 August 2023 against Rana Safeer Hussain and Rana Fasi Haider under Section 298, 298A of PPC with the police in Kot Momin, Sargodha, claiming that both accused shared objectionable religious content on their Facebook.
Jaranwala Case 9: On 16 August 2023, violent attacks were perpetrated on the Christian community in Jaranwala, Faisalabad District. At about 5 a.m. when a woman in one locality, known as Cinema Basti, alleged that she found some blasphemous material affixed to a gas meter outside the house of two brothers, Raja Masih and Rocky Masih. The news spread around the town, the local leaders of Tehreek-eLabaik Pakistan (TLP), accompanied by several other people, approached the police to register a case against the two accused. The tensions started to grow and announcements were made from different mosques calling on Muslims to gather and take action against the alleged blasphemy. The announcements used abusive language and incited violence against the Christian community. Consequently, a crowd began to gather at the police station and a FIR#1258/23 was registered against the two accused brothers under Section 295-B & 295-C, PPC.
After 8:30 the attacks on Christian settlements began in Jaranwala city that engulfed nearby villages where a systematic attacks were carried out.
A total of 24 churches, several pastor houses and over 80 homes were burnt down. A street, known as ‘band gali’, was torched. Several adjacent streets were also attacked where Christian households were clearly singled out for attack. In Essa Nagri, many houses next to the churches were attacked and their contents set on fire, while the boundary wall of the graveyard opposite a church was demolished.
A similar attack occurred in the adjoining villages where places of worship were attacked and damaged. Thousands of families residing in Jaranwala, and the neighbouring villages, were displaced and became jobless.
Sahiwal Case 10: On 19 August 2023 an FIR No. 700/23 was registered against Ahsan alias Shan under Section 295- A, 295-B of PPC, and the Prevention of Electronic Crime Act 2016-11. The plaintiff, Amir Farooq filed an application accusing a Christian (TikTok username: ahsanraj275) for displaying in his TikTok a blasphemous letter that caused attack against Christian settlement in Jaranwala. The TLP staged protests which led police to include charge under The Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 in the FIR against the accused, which basically allows prolonged detentions on suspicions.
Rawalpindi Case 11: Griffin Gill (nickname Saghar Mittoo), converted to Islam after a dispute with his Christian brothers over a property from his family, as he was reportedly unable to repay loans from various individuals and a bank. He filed a complaint at Race Course Police Station, Rawalpindi alleging that his family members desecrated the Holy Quran in Christian Colony, Rawalpindi on 24 August 2023. The SHO forwarded the application to the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) for further investigation. The ASP required evidence for the allegation, which the complainant failed to produce. However, the community leaders from Muslim and Christian communities helped resolving the matter amicably while police controlled the situation.
Faisalabad Case 12 (Tandalianwala): On 7 September 2023 an FIR No. 1034/23 was registered against Ms. Najma Bibi under section 211 of PPC and The Punjab Maintenance of Public Order (MPO) Ordinance, 1960 at police station, Tandalianwala.
William Gill brought a complaint alleging that Najma Bibi attempted to create religious disharmony when Christian residents asked her to stop supplying narcotics in the locality. First, she threatened to make the Christian settlement another Jaranwala, then she went on to incite Muslims to take action against the Christians using a fabricated story of desecration of Quran. However the local Ahle Sunnat Waljmaat called a meeting and found allegation of blasphemy by Najma Bibi to be false. However, the residents of the Christian Colony Tandalianwala had to relocate temporarily for safety.
Khanewal Case 13: On 7 September 2023, at Landhi Basti, Khanewal, Matthew Pius, a 12-year-old student of 5th grade, forgot his book on the table. The following day, the janitor mistakenly discarded a page from the book, someone retrieved it and handed it to his class teacher, Ms. Tayyaba. Matthew’s name was written on the page. The teacher beat Matthew and made him apologize. Next day, local law enforcement, along with relevant agencies, visited Matthew’s house to take his statement.
Following their investigation, the police concluded that Matthew was innocent however the incident caused scare among the Christian population and forced the family to relocate.
- A number of Christians were unofficially arrested in several of these cases, particularly in Sargodha, Jaranwala and Faisalabad. NGO Christian True Spirit helped release 34 people while CLAAS got six persons released from Jaranwala police through court interventions. Large scale illegal arrests were also made in Sargodha, and Faisalabad, where the people in Jaranwala had taken refuge. Hence, the victims of attacks, false cases of blasphemy were further victimized by the police apparently to appease the so-called religious outfits.
- The illegal detentions included many women and juveniles.
- On 18 August 2023, the IG Punjab Police purported an obsolete narrative that the incidents were a foreign conspiracy and the police had broken the network of culprits, insinuating that the Christian suspects were part of a conspiracy or even guilty. This emboldened the so-called religious parties on one hand and disempowered the victims of violence.
- There is tangible evidence to suggest that the police tried to force their narrative on Christians regarding the incidents rather than keep to their lawful stance of innocent until proven guilty. In Sargodha the police and administration compelled prominent Christians to record video messages and upload on their social media accounts wherein they praised the administration and their action, supposedly to disassociate themselves from the people arrested by the police.
- In Faisalabad, the police forced the Christian clergy to exhibit posters showing remorse over the desecration of Quran on Sunday. Nonetheless, in the local context usually such statements would be tantamount to a confession of a crime.
- The incident in Jaranwala on 16 August 2023 was a replication of what happened in Shanti Nagar in 1997, Shangla Hill in 2005, and Gojra and Korian in 2009, and numerous other incidents in which mobs gathered, following provocative announcements of alleged acts of blasphemy, usually emanating from mosques or religious groups of majority faith. The failure of the police and administration to stop mob violence-inflicting harm on members of Christian communities, causing fatalities in some cases, committing arson and looting properties and desecrating churches is also a pattern.
- The police and administration has indirectly worked against the rights and interests of the religious minority communities while favouring the politics of involved religious outfits. Jurists at the recent CSJ meeting said that the police in the Jaranwala incident has been making first one assumption than another – from pinning it on ‘foreign conspiracy’ to ‘honor based crime’ to personal interests. The recent police version in the investigation does not support the assertion made by the IG Punjab regarding the involvement of ‘foreign elements in the Jaranwala violence’, for which he is yet to present any proof, said the jurists.
- The Supreme Court of Pakistan has taken a suo moto notice of the Jaranwala incident and Bishop Azad Marshall, the moderator of Church of Pakistan has approached the Lahore High Court (LHC) for directing the formation of a judicial commission of inquiry over the incident.
Eye Witness Accounts
Several victims and witnesses of the Jaranwala incident were present at the event and they spoke about what they had seen and experienced. Shakeel Bhatti said that the attack had been orchestrated. Lala Robin Daniel a Faisalabad based activist also spoke and said that several members of the Christian community were being picked up by the police. Others said that even minors were not spared and were picked up by the police and were being kept in custody in the name of shelter or protection.
All of the testimonies confirmed that the mob violence in Jaranwala had been pre-planned for political motives.
Through these testimonies it was observed that the police were reluctant to apprehend the actual perpetrators of the violence act, and that because of this, extremist outfits that were using blasphemy as an excuse to politicize a situation, were being emboldened. Members of the Christian community in Jaranwala and Sargodha were being targeted.
The panelists said there was a conscious attempt being made by the police to cover up the mob violence.