Churches in Pakistan attacked amidst blasphemy accusations

LAHORE, Pakistan — A wave of violence has struck the town of Jaranwala in Punjab province, Pakistan, as armed mobs targeted at least two churches, accusing two Christian residents of blasphemy. Shocking videos circulating on social media depict hundreds of individuals wielding batons and sticks, attacking the Salvation Army Church and the Saint Paul Catholic Church, reducing them to ashes. Adding to the devastation, another mob descended upon private Christian residences, setting them ablaze and shattering windows.

The turmoil unfolded in Jaranwala, situated approximately 115 kilometers (71 miles) from Lahore, the provincial capital. Mohammad Naved, a Punjab provincial police inspector, assured that authorities are diligently working to restore order and manage the unruly mob. “We are undertaking all legal measures as required in the situation,” Naved conveyed to Al Jazeera.

In response to the violence, police have lodged reports against two local Christian residents, invoking Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. The incident prompted the arrest of over 100 individuals, a move announced by Punjab’s caretaker information minister, Amir Mir.

In an endeavor to quell the escalating tensions and restore peace, Paramilitary Rangers have been deployed to Tehsil Jaranwala District Faisalabad, an area grappling with a volatile religious conflict.

The catalyst for the upheaval emerged from the discovery of torn pages of the Quran near a Christian colony. Allegedly bearing blasphemous content, the pages were presented to a local religious leader, who swiftly mobilized Muslims to protest and demand the arrest of the culprits.

Shahid Mehmood, a resident of Jaranwala, described the tense atmosphere that gripped the town. “I reached my shop around 10am, and there were already hundreds of people gathered outside the church,” Mehmood recounted. “Given the situation, I decided to close 10 minutes after opening.”

He further detailed that the frenzy extended to the Christian colony, adjacent to the church, resulting in attacks on smaller churches and significant property damage.

Akmal Bhatti, chairman of Minorities Alliance Pakistan, decried the incident as an abuse of blasphemy laws to justify the wanton destruction of innocent people’s homes. Bhatti emphasized the evacuation of families from the Christian colony as the situation deteriorated, with women and children seeking refuge elsewhere.

Human rights groups argue that Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often exploited for personal motives. The Centre for Social Justice, an independent organization advocating for minority rights, compiled alarming data on blasphemy cases, revealing over 2,000 accusations since 1987. Disturbingly, these allegations have resulted in the deaths of at least 88 individuals.