The brutal mob attack on Christian worship places, their residences, and graveyards in Jaranwala, Faisalabad, earlier in August cannot be entirely deemed as random or spontaneous, with a suspicion that it was orchestrated as part of a larger hate campaign against the local Christians while the role of police and its ability to effectively mitigate and control the situation was also questioned.
This was suggested in a report prepared by a fact-finding mission initiated by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP). The mission, comprising HRCP Chairperson Hina Jilani, Centre for Social Justice Executive Director Peter Jacob, senior Women's Action Forum member Neelam Hussain, and historian and rights activist Dr Yaqoob Bangash had visited Jaranwala where at least 24 churches and several dozen smaller chapels as well as scores of houses were torched and looted in a series of brutal mob-led attacks against the local Christian community on August 16, 2023.
The attacks were mounted following rumours and allegations of blasphemy against a Christian man and subsequent calls for action by Muslims from mosque loudspeakers, thousands of men gathered in the town and proceeded to attack Christian churches and homes.
The mission said that it 'cannot rule out the suspicion that this was not a spontaneous or random crowd [that led the attacks], but part of a larger campaign of hatred against the local Christians.'
Further, the mission noted that local religious leaders were complicit.
On the role of the police, the mission said that it is cognizant of the operational difficulties the authorities may have faced in such a small town with few administrative and law enforcement resources to deal with such a large crowd and widespread violence. However, there are concerns on the timeliness of its response apart from the strategy employed to restrain the crowd.
The fact-finding team said it visited four sites which were attacked. They also met with survivors from the affected localities and other people in the area and recorded their accounts. The mission also spoke to members of the police and civil administration to gauge their assessment of the incidents and response in controlling
The mission found that of the 500 Christian families that live in Jaranwala, 300 are in Christian Town/Essa Nagri, while others live in neighbourhoods with mixed religious populations.
Most of the resident Christian community living in Jaranwala are from impoverished backgrounds who work either in municipal services in the local government structure or private factories that dot the city.
Facts of the incident
The incident that sparked the mobs and subsequent violence, the mission found that the origin was a woman who found alleged blasphemous material plastered on the gas meter of two Christian brothers living in the locality at 5 am.
By 6:30 am, allegations of blasphemy against the two Christian brothers, one of whom was a local pastor, had spread throughout the locality, and leaders of a religious party accompanied by several people had approached the police to file a case.
An FIR was lodged against the two brothers were lodged by 7 am.
Subsequently, Superintendent of Police (SP) Bilal Suleri held a meeting with representatives of the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) and the local peace committee in a bid to defuse the situation. A deal was said to have been reached between Suleri and the religious leaders, with the latter agreeing to wait for the police to arrest the accused and not take any reactive action to disturb law and order in the area.
While the police were engaged in these efforts, reports started pouring in of growing tensions in different areas apart from Christian residents fleeing their homes fearing imminent violence.
Police pleas to pacify the crowd and religious leaders and seek time to arrest the culprits were not very successful as by 9:15 am when Faisalabad Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Operations Dr Rizwan reached the locality, a large crowd had already gathered in that area and several properties, including churches and smaller chapels and houses, had already been set ablaze by the crowd and the violence had spread to other Christian localities as well.
Announcements were made from different mosques calling on Muslims to gather and take action against the alleged blasphemy. The first such announcement came from the Mehtab mosque at 9:20 am.
A crowd had also gathered outside the home of Assistant Commissioner Shaukat
Masih, a Christian. The assistant commissioner and his family were, however, evacuated and shifted to a place of safety by the police.
The attacks were not just limited to Jaranwala city but also engulfed nearby villages where a systematic attack was perpetrated on Christian places of worship and households of Christians. This pattern was repeated for attacks perpetrated on August 16.
The commission said they spoke to numerous witnesses who stated that many of those who committed the arson were not from the city itself but had come from the adjoining villages. One person attested that a tractor trolley full of people, as well as several persons on motorbikes, had arrived from a village, transporting men who then burnt down a church and houses, thus giving more credibility to the notion that the attack was premeditated.
The mission’s inspection of the damage by fire points towards planned arson and deliberate desecration of religious symbols, even though the looting of homes may have been more opportunistic.
The mission recommended reviewing the country's blasphemy laws to prevent their misuse against individuals or any religious minority.
Further, HRCP said there is a need to develop policies and strategies to deal with organized extremist groups so that no individual or group can undermine the writ of the state.
The caretaker Punjab government was urged to take measures to implement recommendations of the judicial inquiry that was held into the communal riots of Gojra in 2009 so that there is no impunity for organized Muslim religious groups that openly declare their intentions of violent action against religious minorities.
The government was further urged to take stern action against any instances of hate speech against any community.
HRCP stated that the provincial government must ensure that victims and survivors are compensated immediately while damaged neighbourhoods are rebuilt.
The compensation money must be commensurate with the damage and disbursed swiftly.
The commission further called on the local administration to publicly clarify the reasons for the transfer of an assistant commissioner from the minority Christian community and whether it was due to any fault on his part or to protect him and his family.
HRCP stressed that the 2014 judgement of the Supreme Court, calling for raising a separate police force to protect religious minorities' places of worship, must be implemented urgently, and the financial and human resources needed to do this must be made available without any further delay.