Youhanabad: two months on

Asif Aqeel reports on the Christian community's growing isolation, over 60 days after the Youhanabad attack

Youhanabad: two months on
Thousands of Christians still haven’t returned to Youhanabad after the March 15 church bombings and the ensuing lynching of two men. Normalcy hasn’t returned in the Christian neighborhood and the community is feeling isolated.

The suicide bombings in St. John’s Catholic Church and Protestant Christ Church were timed to cause optimum damage since there were no less than 2,000 worshippers present in the Sunday service. But volunteer security guards and policemen overpowered the suicide bombers and did not let them enter the buildings at the cost of their own lives.

The angry mob burned the bodies of the two men who were later found to be innocent.  Not just this, the mob blocked Ferozepur Road, damaged the Metro Bus terminal, harassed onlookers, mistreated media personnel and manhandled the police. The Nishtar Town police have registered several cases against those involved in the violence.
The media devoted more airtime to the mob's vandalism than to the bombings' aftermath

The electronic media devoted more airtime to lynching and the mob’s vandalism than to the aftermath of the bombings. The sacrifice of more than 17 volunteer security guards and policemen was soon dismissed and the lynching sparked outpour of grief and angst. Social media was filled with vitriol against the Christian community.  A picture was circulated on social media, appearing to show Christians burning the Pakistani flag. The image was forged; the original picture was actually from an earlier protest by Christians where they burned an effigy while holding the country’s flag in the background.

On the Qutab Online talk show, aired directly from Youhanabad on 18 March, its host, Syed Bilal Qutab, stressed that no one would tolerate burning of the national flag.


Another TV journalist, Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a former recipient of the prestigious Chevening scholarship, posted on Facebook:

“International Media never heard that Pakistani Christians burn Muslims alive? … I did an internet search this morning using different constructions of the sentence (Christians, burn Muslims, Pakistan) but no stories turn up that have a head line (sic) or key words that match… Christians in Lahore lynched Muslim men because they had beards.”

Two days after the two men were killed, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Khan told the National Assembly that their deaths at the hands of a crowd of young Christian men was “the worst form of terrorism”. There are several incidents of lynching in the past but there are no examples available where the act was described in such stern verbiage.
Why are Pakistani Christians perceived from a different lens?

Lok Sujag Project Manager Kashif Baloch said the society perceived the action of lynching not by a Pakistani mob but by a Christian mob. “We have come to the point where every individual, and segment of society, believes that violence is the only way to achieve their goal. Why are Pakistani Christians perceived from a different lens?”

Youhanabad is in the constituency where Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif got elected from in the last general elections. “The chief minister chose not to visit the area and even did not go to distribute compensation checks among the bereaved families,” said Baloch.

“The police and law enforcement agency personnel kept raiding without arrest warrants for almost a month.”

“They scaled walls of their houses at night, used abusive language with women and reportedly used the pejorative term commonly used in society to express hatred towards Christians,” Baloch said.


Now dozens of middle-aged residents of Youhanabad keep watch at night to ensure that no one abducts their youths.

“Sixty-nine suspects have been formally charged and sent to the judicial lockup but still about nine persons are missing. Despite annoyance expressed by the High Court, the police still haven’t produced them in the court,” Baloch said.

Christian women of the area have also increasingly faced trouble after the incident. They are now using Metro Bus terminal of Nishtar Town where they face systematic harassment each day. “According to our information, several domestic female workers lost their jobs after their employers disapproved the act committed by the mob. Several men working in nearby factories informed us that they were told not to come after the incident.”


A Christian seminary student wrote the following message on Facebook on the third day of the Youhanabad attack:

“Today my dad went for a job interview and was being rejected because of what the Mob has done on sunday (sic). The manager used to many hard words against the Christian community (sic). This is so heartbreaking. I don’t know what to say about that manager or about that mob.”

Some of the Muslims living in surrounding areas of Youhanabad have also expressed anger over the lynching and burning. After the second day of the incident, they started to pour in and there was fear of a communal fight which the police managed to avert.

But several residents on condition of anonymity said that there were incidents of firing in the air in Youhanabad after March 15 but no one dared to report to the police and identify the perpetrators. They feared their Christian neighborhood would be attacked like Gojra and Joseph Colony.

Terrorists are fully prepared in this war against the most populous Christian neighborhood in Pakistan. Early reports confirmed that the terrorists had been living among the residents for some time in a rented house.

The community thinks it faces an existential threat

One suspect reportedly named Abid Baig Muawiya linked with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) splinter group Jamaatul Ahrar was arrested on April 23. Four other terror suspects were arrested from Youhanabad on April 29. Still another suspect was arrested the next day from a religious gathering in Youhanabad. The suspect was handed over to the Nishtar police. However, there is little media coverage to these arrests.

“The Youhanabad incident and the reactions have exposed sociopolitical fault lines as well as gaps in the governance,” said Center for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob.

“The absence of local bodies has created a serious fault line in governance and preparedness for responding to crisis situations,” he added.

Youhanabad is in the constituency where Shahbaz Sharif got elected from

Jacob further highlighted the Christians’ apprehensions.

“The minority community thinks they face an existential threat because of terrorism, while majority community wants them to take it easy since terrorism is affecting everyone,” he said.

“The political leadership thinks their statements should be given credence while common people displayed mistrust about the promises made by them.”