Police in Pakistan on Saturday night charged a Christian with blasphemy for uploading on TikTok a video of content that last week led to attacks on Christian homes and businesses in Jaranwala more than 100 kilometers away, sources said.
Tensions flared over the weekend in 186/9-L village, Sahiwal, Punjab Province when members of Islamist extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan called for protests against the alleged blasphemy after the TikTok post by 27-year-old Ehsaan Shan Masih went viral.
“A major crisis was averted due to timely action by the police, otherwise the entire Christian community of Sahiwal was in a state of perpetual fear since Saturday afternoon,” Bishop Abraham Daniel of the Sahiwal Baptist Church told Morning Star News.
Arrested Saturday night after police took him and his family into protective custody, Masih is in jail on judicial remand and could face years of incarceration before his case is finally resolved. Among other charges, he was booked under Section 295-A of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes relating to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs,” punishable by up to 10 years in prison, a fine or both.
“Ehsaan is a laborer and father to two minor children – he cannot read or write and barely manages his livelihood,” Pastor Daniel said. “He came across a video on social media related to the attacks in Jaranwala that he posted on his TikTok account. Ehsaan was probably not even aware that sharing such content is a crime, but it’s said that ignorance of the law is not an excuse. We pray for his early release, but at the same time I’d urge my fellow Christians to be extra cautious on social media.”
Masih was also charged under Section 295-B relating to desecration of the Koran, punishable by life in prison and a fine, and Section 11 of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act relating to dissemination of hate speech. Intent to blaspheme must be proven for a conviction under Pakistan’s statutes.
The images were reportedly of the material that led to the rioting that began on Wednesday, August 16, in Jaranwala, 116 kilometers (72 miles) north in Faisalabad District, where two Christians were charged after one found desecrated pages of the Koran accompanied by blasphemous comments attached to a photo of him and his brother.
Muslims claimed Umar Saleeem, known as Rocky, and his brother Umair Saleem, alias Raja, were responsible for the blasphemous materials, and police charged them under Sections 295-B and 295-C of the blasphemy statutes; Section 295-C relates to insulting Muhammad and is punishable by death.
Aftermath in Jaranwala
In Jaranwala, a relative of the two charged Christians, Rocky and Raja, said they were presented before a judicial magistrate on Saturday, and that her family hasn’t returned to the area because their home was in ruins.
“There’s nothing to return to, because our house was completely destroyed by the protesters,” the relative said. “We have no clue yet how we will be able to get back to our daily routine due to the fear of being victimised for being related to them.”
Some semblance of normalcy has begun to return to the charred Christian section of the town as government workers have cleared the streets of ashes and debris from the mob violence that began on Wednesday, August 16, against churches and Christian homes and businesses.
A visit to the area on Sunday, August 20, by Morning Star News showed that most Christian residents had returned to their charred homes to begin rebuilding their lives, which will take years.
A damage assessment report by Jaranwala officials to the Punjab government found 19 church buildings and 86 houses were damaged by fire during the rampage.
“The government has announced that it would rebuild our homes, but we don’t know when it will deliver on its assurance,” said Rafaqat Masih, a resident of Christian Town.
In a narrow lane crammed with victims, relief workers, and police personnel, he shared how his house had been looted and then torched by use of chemicals.
“I’m left with nothing,” the father of three minor children said with tears in his eyes. “They took whatever valuables they could get their hands on and then simply set fire to the quarters.”
Zoha Bibi of Issa Nagri said her family hid in fields when the attacks began.
“When we returned to our home the next day, we saw that the front door was broken down, and all our valuables, including electronic appliances, had been stolen,” she said. “They even ripped apart my children’s cupboard and broke their toys. Fortunately, they didn’t torch the house, otherwise we would be without shelter too.”
Though Punjab Province interim Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi announced a 2 million rupee (US$6,723) compensation for each affected family during a short visit to Jaranwala on Sunday, church leaders and social activists say much more will be required to restore the lives of the affected Christians.
“Only one church hall has been ‘restored’ by the government where the CM [Chief Minister] was due to come on Sunday,” Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall told Morning Star News. “We hope that all churches will be fully restored, and there will be no compromise on the quality of the construction or renovation of the buildings.”
Special services were held in streets and grounds in Jaranwala on Sunday to express solidarity with the victims, he said.
“We want to assure our brothers and sisters in Christ that we are with them in this time of grief,” Marshall said. “We continue to pray for them and have faith that our Lord will alleviate their suffering.”
The Rev. Major Mashood Masih of the area’s historic Salvation Army church said that the government had yet to start restoration work there.
“They have just cleared some debris from the rooms so far,” he said. “We are hoping that they will expedite work so that we can resume our services. Our members are still reeling from the shock of the attacks, but their faith has strengthened in the Lord.”
Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.