ROME – Bishops in Pakistan have called for prayer after an angry mob vandalized several Christian homes and churches in the district of Faisalabad Wednesday following allegations of blasphemy and desecration of the Quran.
In a brief social media post, the Pakistani bishops on their “Catholics in Pakistan” Facebook page said that “on 16th August, an enraged mob vandalized multiple churches in Jaranwala, Faisalabad over blasphemy allegations,” and asked followers to “pray for us.”
The incident unfolded Wednesday morning, as hundreds of Muslims armed with batons and sticks attacked a Christian community in Jaranwala, an industrial district of Faisalabad in Pakistan, damaging several homes and burning several churches after a Quran allegedly was desecrated by a young Christian man.
Both the Salvation Army Church and the Saint Paul Catholic Church in Jaranwala were attacked, with the mob setting them ablaze, while another mob attacked private homes nearby, setting them alight and breaking windows.
The violence erupted after pages torn from the Quran were apparently discovered near the Christian community with allegedly blasphemous content written on them. Those pages were then taken to a local religious leader, who reportedly told Muslims to protest and demanded that those responsible be arrested.
Angry protesters then went on a rampage, destroying the young man’s house and attacking churches and other homes nearby.
Due to the scale of the violence, government officials deployed additional police forces and sent in the army to help restore order to the area. Police launched raids after clearing the crowd in an effort to identify perpetrators, and dozens have reportedly been arrested.
However, several videos circulating on social media show policemen watching the scene unfold without intervening.
A local priest, Father Khalid Mukhtar, told the Associated Press that there are 17 Christian churches in Jaranwala and that he believes most of them were attacked. He said his own house had been burned.
Similarly, Catholic priest Father Gulshan Barkat, who teaches church history at the National Catholic Institute of Theology in Karachi, told the AP that the allegations of blasphemy were a “false accusation,” and that mosques in the area were to blame, as earlier in the day they had used loudspeakers attached to minarets to urge Muslims to “attack the churches and Christian community.”
“The emotion of our Muslim brethren flares up very quickly, even at hearsay,” he said.
Residents speaking to other international news outlets also reported hearing announcements inciting the mob, with one such resident, Shakil Masih, telling Reuters that he heard the announcements and then saw crowds flocking to the Christian area.
News of the incident quickly spread, and in the southern port city of Karachi, the largest city in Pakistan, dozens of Christians rallied to condemn the violence in Jaranwala.
A delegation of Muslim clerics apparently arrived in Jaranwala from Lahore to express solidarity with the Christian community. Pakistani Christians long have complained of what they describe as routine discrimination and acts of persecution.
Wednesday’s incident was widely condemned both within Pakistan and by the international community, with caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar saying on Twitter, “I am gutted by the visuals coming out of Jaranwala, Faisalabad.”
He pledged that “stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities,” saying, “All law enforcement has been asked to apprehend culprits & bring them to justice. Rest assured that the government of Pakistan stands with our citizenry on equal basis.”
Former Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif also condemned the rampage, saying, “There is no place for violence in any religion.”
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan, as the mere suggestion can incite widespread violence.
Under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or prominent Islamic religious figures can be jailed and even sentenced to death. While authorities have not yet formally carried out a death sentence for blasphemy, several people, mostly Christians, have spent years on death row after facing accusations they claim are false.
The most famous of those cases is that of Asia Bibi, who in 2010 was accused of blasphemy following an altercation with fellow farmhands who refused to drink from the same water jug as a Christian. She was then jailed and sentenced to death.
Two government officials were murdered after voicing public support for Bibi, who was eventually acquitted in 2018 after spending nearly 10 years on death row. An appeal to the ruling was shot down in 2019, and she and her family then fled Pakistan after receiving death threats.
For years, rights groups have insisted that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are less about religion and are more often used to settle personal scores. Even the mention of blasphemy in the country is enough to spark mass riots and incite mobs to violence, lynchings and killings.
Earlier this month, a teacher in Turbat, in the southern province of Balochistan, was killed after being accused of blasphemy during a lecture. In February, a mob grabbed a man from his prison cell in the rural district of Nankana and lynched him for allegedly desecrating the Quran.
One of the worst attacks against Christians took place in 2009, when a mob burned an estimated 60 homes and killed six Christians in the district of Gojra in Punjab after the Christians were accused of insulting Islam.
In December 2021, an angry Muslim mob swarmed a sports equipment factory in the Sialkot district, killing a Sri Lankan man and burning his body over allegations of blasphemy.
According to the Centre for Social Justice, an independent organization that advocates for minority rights, more than 2,000 people have been formally accused of blasphemy in Pakistan since 1987, and at least 88 people have been killed as a result of these allegations.
Prominent Pakistani politician Shireen Mazari, who previously served as Minister for Human Rights, said Wednesday’s attack was “absolutely shameful and condemnable.”
“Where are the law enforcers to protect our Christian community and their churches?” she asked.
Prominent Protestant Bishop Azad Marshall, who belongs to the Church of Pakistan, an amalgama of Anglicans, Scottish Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the Methodists, said on Twitter that “words fail me” in light of the attack.
“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,” he said, saying, “Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed having been falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran.”
Marshall said that as a Chrisitan community, “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.”
He asked in two separate hashtags that followers “cry with us” and “pray with us.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen