Christians protest mob violence in Pakistan

Pakistan’s Christians still ‘living in fear’ after 2023 Punjab violence

As Pope Francis invites the Church to pray during March for Christian martyrs, Fr. Zafar Iqbal highlights the difficulties facing Christians in Pakistan, especially in parts of Punjab province where Muslims attacked churches and homes in August 2023.

By Anne Preckel

A decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court recently sparked hope among Christians in Jaranwala, in Punjab province, that attacks against their communities in August 2023 would be further investigated.

The court found an initial report by Punjab province authorities inadequate and requested further information on the mass violence, criticizing the local investigative authorities' lack of determination to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Only a few attacks were registered and documented, leading the court to request a new report from Punjab, home to the majority of the country's Christians.

Bishop Samson Shukardin, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan and bishop of Hyderabad, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying it shows the court takes the issue seriously.

He told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) that the news was “very positive for us Christians.”

Christian houses and churches destroyed

Regarding the violence that erupted on August 16, 2023 in Punjab province, Fr. Zafar Iqbal, a parish priest in the area, called it “a black day” for local Christians.

Muslims carried out acts of violence against Christian communities in Jaranwala following accusations of blasphemy against two Christians.

“These people were so angry they destroyed more than 200 Christian houses, 26 churches, a school, a cemetery and many crosses, and burned our holy Bibles," Fr. Iqbal told Vatican News.

"It was a really bad situation," said the priest, who was in Rome for training at the time, adding that no Christians were killed in the attacks.

‘Living under shadow of fear’

Even though the situation now seems under control, Christians still feel paralyzed, according to Fr. Iqbal.

"They live under the shadow of fear, and cannot move freely, speak freely, or work freely. They might not be physically threatened at the moment, but fear dominates our hearts and minds," he explained, noting that most Christians in Punjab are poor and reliant on Muslim employers.

"Women in our community work in Muslim households, men on the lands of Muslim landowners," he said, adding that these Christians now fear that the tensions could affect their work.

Seeking justice in wake of violence

Several people were arrested after the August attacks, but many suspects are already free, noted Fr. Iqbal.

A Punjab judicial officer made a statement at a Pakistan Supreme Court hearing, saying that after 304 arrests, only 22 cases were registered, and 18 chargesheets collected.

Given these statistics, Fr. Iqbal pointed out that the Christian community's trust in local police is low. "We are not very hopeful that we will get justice,” he said.

Church representatives and human rights activists in Pakistan say the situation for the Christian minority worsened last year, with false blasphemy accusations, physical assaults, kidnappings, rapes, and forced conversions reported.

“The Christian community's stress levels increased in 2023 as their freedoms contracted and the instruments of repression sharpened,” UCA News quoted Naeem Yousaf Gill, director of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), a legal body of the Pakistani Bishops' Conferece.

Potential societal turning point

Some Jaranwala residents, including Muslims, shared details of the violence on social media, spreading the word, Bishop Shukardin of Hyderabad told ACN.

He said these citizens "have shown things cannot continue this way," expressing his hopes that solidarity with Christians would prevail in Jaranwala.

Archbishop Sebastian Francis Shaw of Lahore sees the anti-Christian riots as a potential turning point between Christians and Muslims in Pakistan.

"Many Muslims now feel incidents like Jaranwala should not define the country's image. For the first time, Muslim scholars have sided with us," Archbishop Shaw explained in an interview with ACN at the end of 2023. He also noted signs of Islamic clerics lobbying the government for dialogue and a better society.

Promoting human dignity and mutual respect

In the interview with Vatican News, Fr. Iqbal cited positive examples of Christian-Muslim cooperation in everyday life in Jaranwala.

He stressed that despite discrimination and challenges, Christians in Pakistan aim to continue promoting dialogue and peace.

“We face many difficulties in Pakistan, discrimination against human dignity, a justice crisis, an economic crisis,” he said. “Yet despite all this, we Christians witness and evangelize with peace and love. We are not desperate or hopeless but are doing our part to create an atmosphere where every person is shown respect and their dignity is recognized.”

Listen to a clip of the interview

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12 March 2024, 12:43