A charged mob of around 7,000 people stormed a Christian colony in the Jaranwala Tehsil of Faisalabad district on Wednesday morning, where they ransacked several buildings and set multiple churches on fire over blasphemy allegations, locals and police said.
The incident was widely condemned by Pakistan's Christian community, political leaders and rights groups while Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar promised stern action against perpetrators.
The situation became tense in Jaranwala on Wednesday morning when crowds were gathered and announcements were made from mosques that some pages of religious scripture had been desecrated.
Soon after, a large mob gathered near the Christian colony at Cinema Chowk, accusing two local Christians of desecrating the Holy Quran.
Local police arrived on the scene and attempted to placate the charged crowd that was growing into a mob. Videos shared on social media showed a police officer assuring the crowd that they would apprehend those responsible, two local Christian residents alias Rocky and Raja, and that they would ensure they are persecuted as per the law.
Meanwhile, other videos posted online showed announcements being made from the mosques in the area, inciting 'Muslims' to come out of their homes and take action
The gathering mob and hateful speeches and slogans raised caused fear and panic to spread through the area, with the local markets shut down while hundreds of residents of the Christian colony forced to flee to safety. Locals said that some 500 families living in three Christian settlements had fled the area.
Armed mobs meandered through the streets to the lane where the desecrated pages were allegedly spotted by a woman earlier, and attacked a local church and adjoining residential buildings.
The mob ransacked and torched at least eight churches in the vicinity, including a Salvation Army Church - which is one of the oldest churches in the area - apart from two other Salvation Army churches, one belonging to the FGA and some Presbyterian churches as well.
Furniture from inside buildings in the colony was piled into the street and set ablaze. Some Christian activists stated that some homes in the colony were also set ablaze while several copies of bibles were also desecrated.
There were reports of other buildings and private property being damaged but a complete estimate of the damage will be available once investigators can gain access and complete survey of damaged property.
Later, the mob gathered at Mehtab Masjid near Cinema Chowk and raised slogans in favour of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik, Khatam-e-Nabuwat apart from demanding the execution of the culprits.
However, there were no reports of any casualties.
Locals claimed that if police had acted in time, the situation would not have gotten out of hand.
Police arrive in force
While police squads deployed around the Christian colony were insufficient to prevent the mob from vandalising the churches and other private property,a significantly larger contingent of Punjab police arrived in Jaranwala to control the situation.
Punjab Inspector General of Police Dr Usman Anwar and Punjab Chief Secretary have reached Jaranwala to take stock of the situation.
IGP Dr Anwar said that they have deployed around 6,500 police officers in the area and are now 'in control' of the situation.
He added that a mob of around 7,000 people, including activists of the hardline Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) were also part of the mob who attacked the Christian colony and churches.
Meanwhile, a notification stated that the assistant commissioner assigned to Jaranwala, Christian Shaukat Masih, had been suspended and directed to report to the Administration Wing for further orders. Rana Aurangzeb, the assistant commissioner of Tandianwala, was directed to oversee affairs in Jaranwala as an additional charge for three months.
The incident was condemned by the Christian community, human rights organisations, political leaders and the caretaker prime minister.
Azad Marshall, the president of Bishop Church of Pakistan, condemned the incident in a statement.
"Words fail me as I write this. We, Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan," he wrote, adding that a Church building was burnt while Bibles have been desecrated while Christians have been tortured and harassed.
"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."
Words fail me as I write this. We, Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan. A church building is being burnt as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been… pic.twitter.com/MbrGi6BbJ5— Bishop Azad Marshall (@BishopAzadM) August 16, 2023
Meanwhile, the National Commission for Human Rights said that many Christian families have gone into hiding and that the situation is "sad and shameful".
"Blasphemy laws have repeatedly been misused with impunity. Police must take swift and strong against perpetrators of this violence," it said in a statement.
4 churches burnt, three belonging to Salvation Army & one FGA church. Countless Bibles burnt, many families in hiding. Situation is sad & shameful. Blasphemy laws have repeatedly been misused with impunity. Police must take swift & strong against perpetrators of this violence. https://t.co/B077d0Q0nf— National Commission for Human Rights (@nchrofficial) August 16, 2023
The rising number of cases of alleged blasphemy & mob violence are extremely concerning. NCHR team has gone to the site. Govt must take take strong action against perpetrators & ensure writ of law. https://t.co/vgmXVEA4tR— National Commission for Human Rights (@nchrofficial) August 16, 2023
In a separate statement, the Human Rights Council of Pakistan (HRCP) said that the mob-led assault on Christian families and their homes and sites of worship in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, following allegations of blasphemy, 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 the last several years," it said, adding that 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.
HRCP demanded that perpetrators and instigators of this violence must be identified and punished to the full extent of the law and that the government must waste no time in raising and equipping special police forces to protect religious minorities’ sites of worship as directed by the 2014 Supreme Court judgment.
The mob-led assault on Christian families and their homes and sites of worship in #Jaranwala, Faisalabad, following allegations of blasphemy, must be condemned in no uncertain terms. The frequency and scale of such attacks—which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable—— Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (@HRCP87) August 16, 2023
In a statement, civil society organisation Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) also condemned the attack. CSJ's Executive Director Peter Jacob demanded the Punjab government to act fast to address lawlessness.
"There has been an exponential increase in the abuse of blasphemy laws in the on-going year," Jacob said, adding, "Till August 16, 2023, some198 people had been accused [of blasphemy] with 85% of victims Muslims, 9% Ahmadis and 4.4% Christian."
He noted that in July, strife with the Christian community was seen in Sargodha.
"Today, five churches and dozens of houses have been vandalized, destroyed. Hundreds of Christians have fled their homes from the Christian colonies of Issa Nagari, and Nasrat Colony, in Jaranwala," he lamented.
PM orders action
Meanwhile, Caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar stated that stern action would be taken against those who violate the law and target minorities.
His statement on Twitter added that all law enforcement organisations have been asked to apprehend culprits and bring them to justice.
"Rest assured that the government of Pakistan stands with our citizenry on equal basis."
I am gutted by the visuals coming out of Jaranwala,#Faisalabad. Stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities. All law enforcement has been asked to apprehend culprits and bring them to justice. Rest assured that the government of Pakistan stands… https://t.co/GHWUGA1NNq— Anwaar ul Haq Kakar (@anwaar_kakar) August 16, 2023
Elsewhere, former prime minister Shehbaz Sharif termed the incidents of Jaranwala "sad" and "disturbing".
"All religious places, Holy Books and personages are sacred and deserve our highest level of respect," he said, urging the government to take action against the culprits.