A violent mob poured on a Christian enclave in Pakistan’s Punjab region on Wednesday, attacking and ransacking up to eight churches, setting them on fire and vandalizing adjacent buildings.
The violent gathering, sparked by blasphemy claims against two local Christian citizens, caused terror and anxiety throughout the neighborhood, leading hundreds of Christian families to evacuate their homes.
The accused, known as Rocky Masih and Raja Masih, were charged with insulting Islam and defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed under the controversial Pakistani Penal Code, according to a statement issued by the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
The mob’s rage, spurred by tales broadcast over local mosque loudspeakers, led to demands for the two men’s immediate execution in Jaranwala city, according to the group, adding that despite police assurances that legal action would be taken, recordings showed crowds destroying the Christian colony.
Residents told CSW that at least 500 homes were abandoned in three Christian settlements due to fear of more violence. The Salvation Army Church, one of the area’s oldest, was reportedly set on fire.
In an update Wednesday, the National Commission for Human Rights reported that the number of churches attacked has risen to eight. The commission reported earlier that four churches were burned, and many Bibles were set on fire. Three of those churches were Salvation Army churches.
Extremist slogans in favor of the far-right Islamic extremist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik and the Islamic group Khatam-e-Nabuwat were raised by local mobs.
The delayed response by police drew criticism, with residents expressing the belief that timely intervention could have prevented the escalation. The government subsequently deployed additional police and summoned federal law enforcement to control the mob.
Christians in the area quickly relocated to safer locations with their families, avoiding casualties, according to The Associated Press, which reports that Christians began to return to their homes Thursday, only to discover the devastation left behind.
At least two dozen homes were either torched or severely damaged during the riots, the newswire noted.
The U.S. State Department’s Deputy Spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said the United States was “deeply concerned that churches and homes were targeted,” Reuters reported. “We urge Pakistani authorities to conduct a full investigation into these allegations and call for calm for all those involved.”
CSW’s founder and president, Mervyn Thomas, condemned the violence and criticized the police’s failure to act swiftly. He called on the Pakistani government to enhance security, support the displaced, and arrest those responsible to ensure that mob justice does not prevail.
Bishop Azad Marshall, Moderator Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, called for justice for the Christian minority.
“Words fail me as I write this. We, bishops, priests, and lay people, are deeply pained and distressed by the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan. A church building is being burned as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated, and Christians have been tortured and harassed after being falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran,” the bishop wrote on X.
“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 added.
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have been criticized for their misuse for personal gain, with over 2,000 people accused since 1987. The recent passage of two bills in the legislature, the Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2023 and the National Commission for Minorities Bill 2023, has sparked concerns among Christian and civil society groups.
The ban against blasphemy, which carries no provision to punish a false accuser or witness, was expanded in the 1980s under military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. High-profile cases have brought international attention to the issue, including the assassination of Punjab governor Salman Taseer in 2011, the death sentence of Christian mother Asia Bibi in 2018, and the burning of Christian couple Shehzad and Shamah Masih in 2014.