Destruction following mobs burning Christian churches and homes in Pakistan Destruction following mobs burning Christian churches and homes in Pakistan  (AFP or licensors)

Paul Bhatti reacts to destruction of Christian churches in Pakistan

In the wake of mob violence against Christian churches and homes in Pakistan, Paul Bhatti calls for the repeal of the country's blasphemy laws and for the courts and police to uphold law-and-order.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov

Paul Bhatti, the brother of murdered Christian politician Shahbaz Bhatti, has decried anti-Christian attacks in Pakistan which have wreaked havoc, without proof of any misdoing.

In the interview with Vatican News' Christopher Wells, Mr. Bhatti examined the latest series of attacks against Christians in the country, insisting that it is unacceptable that people take the law into their hands, without consulting justice, and attack innocent Christians.

Several Christian churches were vandalized and scores of houses set on fire on Wednesday by a mob of Muslims who attacked a Christian community in eastern Pakistan, after accusing two of its members of desecrating the Quran, police and community leaders said.

The attack took place in Jaranwala in the industrial district of Faisalabad. 

Mob violence

After the accusations were waged against the Christians, Mr. Bhatti pointed out that the accusations were broadcast aloud from a loudspeaker at a local mosque, which provoked and rallied others to mob together and attack the Christian community.

“As it has happened in the past, thousands of people came on the streets. They destroyed the church; they burned Bibles. There were several Bibles in different churches. They burned this Bible. They destroyed the houses of the local Christian community.”

"Luckily," he acknowledged, "at least until now, no death or injuries are reported because all these Christian community members left their houses and went away. But this is very painful as these people, marginalized and very poor, had to leave everything there and run to save their life. So this is what happened."

He lamented that it was a situation also impossible for police to control, as the mob outnumbered security forces by the thousands.

As more innocent Christians continue to be victimized, and with no punishment for the perpetrators, Mr. Bhatti maintained that Pakistan's blasphemy laws ought to be re-examined and repealed, and that law and justice is for the authorities to decide, not the mobs.

Blasphemy in Pakistan

In Pakistan, the anti-blasphemy law holds that insulting the Prophet Muhammad is a crime punishable by death, while offending Islam's holy book, the Quran, incurs life imprisonment. In the predominantly-Muslim nation, the law remains an extremely sensitive issue and has produced criticism outside and inside the country. 

In the past, charges of blasphemy have incited violent reactions among radical Muslims in Pakistan, who interfere with the proper operations of the legal and court system. There have been various attacks, including lynchings, targeted against the accused or those who defend them. Rights groups say blasphemy allegations have often been used to intimidate religious minorities in the country.

Innocent Christians victimized

"The justice system will verify what should be done," noted Mr. Bhatti, "because it is unacceptable that the people take the law in their hands and try to attack Christian people."

He recognized that some occasionally seek to remedy the issue, as various politicians offer assistance to rebuild Christians homes, but he pointed out that those efforts vanish quickly.

"Most of the time the Christian people are accused and they are put in jail, and the people who provoked and who took the law into their own hands have never received any punishment," he lamented.

"These are innocent people," Mr. Bhatti said. "Now, the whole community, innocent people, children, women who had to leave their houses, have our Bibles burned, and all these things. This is not acceptable. We are really very angry and very, very, very depressed about that which happened in Pakistan."

Mr. Bhatti insisted that not allowing the people to take the law in their own hands is priority, and called on them to be publicly punished when they do so. 

He also called for promoting interreligious dialogue and education, saying Muslim scholars have a key responsibility, as they educate children studying the Quran, "to teach them the common values of the religion," and "to fight any message of hatred."

“This will be not only protect the Christian community, this will be better for Pakistan, this will be better for Islam itself, because I believe Islam is a peaceful religion. It has very good common values. But these values should be seen.”

Anti-blasphemy laws

The long-documented issue with the anti-blasphemy law is the fact that when an accusation is brought forward against a Christian in the country, often it is taken at face value, without presenting proof or any evidence.

The case of Asia Bibi, who eventually was released after years of legal battles, demonstrated a classic example of someone condemned to death, without evidence, for alleged acts of blasphemy.

A recent report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which drew attention to deteriorating religious freedom in numerous contries globally, expressed concern for the continued enforcement of blasphemy provisions punishing individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, and efforts to enact stricter blasphemy legislation in several countries.

In a statement, the Commission's Chair, Nury Turkel, observed: “Blasphemy prosecutions demonstrate a blatant disregard for human rights, and are often used to target members of religious communities and others who hold different or dissenting views.” 

'Our people, places of worship are not safe'

The President of the Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, decried and condemned the terror in Jaranwala, while insisting the Punjab government take action against the attacks' perpetrators.

"These incidents," he wrote in a note released by the Diocese, and published in AsiaNews, "open the way to insecurity for the minorities living in Pakistan. Our places of worship and our people are not safe. Let there be a transparent investigation into this tragic incident so that the primacy of law and justice is restored and a better society is built in harmony and respect for religions."

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17 August 2023, 10:40