Several mobs attacked Christian communities and set fire to several churches on Wednesday in the town of Jaranwala, in Pakistan’s Faisalabad district, after two Christians were accused of defiling the Quran.
Up to 15 church buildings have been desecrated, hundreds of Christian homes destroyed, and thousands of Christians have been forced to flee because of the attacks, according to a Wednesday statement by Maria Lozano, head of press for the Catholic relief group Aid to the Church in Need International (ACN).
The violence and destruction broke out in Jaranwala after local Christians Rocky Masih and Raja Masih were accused of disparaging the Quran, which constitutes blasphemy in Pakistan, punishable by life in prison.
Hundreds of Muslims attacked the Christianity community in Jaranwala, apparently spurred on by Islamic leaders’ broadcast over mosque loudspeakers, according to religious-rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
Lozano further confirmed with CNA that witnesses reported “messages from mosques sent out on loudspeakers were calling on local people to ‘go out and kill’ Christians.”
She said that the attacks have caused a “mass exodus,” with “2,000 Christians forced to flee their homes” so far.
Among the churches that were ransacked and burned was St. Paul Catholic Church, according to Middle East news source Al Jazeera.
Father Abid Tanveer, vicar general of the Catholic Diocese of Faisalabad and an eyewitness of the ongoing attacks, told ACN that “the Christians are very scared” and that “so many people have lost their belongings, everything. They don’t know what to do or where to go.”
Lozano added that “the arrival of firefighters and of police did not dissuade the attackers, who continued to destroy property, throwing furniture out into the streets and setting fire to churches and homes, while calling for the murder of the alleged blasphemers.”
“Despite the widespread destruction and shock caused by the incident,” Lozano said that “there is currently no indication of victims among the Christian community members, who “seem to have been able to flee the scene because they were warned in advance.”
Documenting the destruction on Wednesday, a leader in the Protestant Church of Pakistan, Bishop Azad Marshall, described the Christian community in Jaranwala as “deeply pained and distressed.”
“A church building is being burnt as I type this message,” Marshall wrote. “Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed, having been falsely accused of violating the holy Quran.”
The attacks in Jaranwala come after the passage of new blasphemy laws in Pakistan.
Current Pakistani blasphemy laws mandate life in prison for defiling or insulting the Quran while the punishment for defiling the name of Muhammad or other Muslim prophets is death.
The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act of 2023, passed by both houses of the Pakistani Parliament but not yet signed into law, would further increase the punishment for insulting any wife, family member or companion of Muhammad to life in prison.
Kiri Kankhwende, a representative for CSW, told CNA that most likely “these attacks don’t have a link to the passage of the new blasphemy law amendments, which still hasn’t received presidential approval” and is not yet in force.
Nonetheless, Kankhwende said that “we have seen this pattern before” and that “this may be a case of blasphemy laws being used to settle personal scores.”
After the passage of the new blasphemy laws, Mervyn Thomas, CSW president, warned that there is “overwhelming evidence of how the existing blasphemy legislation has resulted in extra-judicial killings and countless incidents of mob violence based on false accusations.”
“Making the blasphemy laws more stringent could inflame the situation further and is the opposite of what is needed,” Thomas said in his statement.
Amid the attacks in Jaranwala, police have filed reports against two Christian residents, for allegedly breaking Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, according to CSW.
CSW also said that “local residents expressed their belief” that “if police had acted in time, the situation would not have escalated.”
“The government has since called for additional police contingents from other cities and summoned the Rangers, federal law enforcement, to subdue the mob,” CSW said. “Exit and entry points to the city have been sealed while Christian institutions and churches in adjoining cities have been closed in an attempt to avoid further attacks.”
Pakistan’s several anti-blasphemy laws have garnered international condemnation and have been accused of increasing the persecution and targeting of Christians and other minority communities, including Shia Muslims.
“While half the victims are Muslim, the blasphemy laws disproportionately victimize religious minorities, and repeated studies have shown that they are used as a means of intimidation or score-settling in private disputes,” Paul Marshall, head of the South and Southeast Asian Action Team at the Religious Freedom Institute, told CNA following the new blasphemy laws’ passage.
“The proposed increase in such laws will increase the climate of religious fear that already grips minorities,” Marshall explained.
The latest anti-blasphemy law to have been passed by the Pakistani Parliament would apply to any person who directly or indirectly “defiles the sacred name” of any wife, family member or companion of Muhammad through written word, spoken word, visible representation, imputation, innuendo or insinuation.