On the 16th of August, a mob of religious extremists targeted the Christian community in the eastern part of Pakistan. They engaged in destructive actions, damaging multiple churches and setting fire to homes. Concurrently, two community members were accused of desecrating the Quran. This disturbing event occurred within the industrial district of Jaranwala, which is part of Faisalabad, a city known as the “Manchester of Pakistan” due to its industrial significance. Authorities reported that the accusation against the Christians stemmed from inscriptions discovered within the Holy Quran, where offensive words were written in red ink. This act ignited strong feelings of anger and indignation.
In Pakistan, the consequences for blasphemy are severe and can result in death. Although formal executions have not been carried out, several individuals accused of blasphemy have been subjected to violent retribution from enraged extremist groups. Tragically, even a former provincial governor and a minority minister lost their lives due to allegations of blasphemy. Yet, the issue of blasphemy charges transcends legal implications. Troubling reports indicate that these allegations are at times exploited as tools for personal vendettas. This manipulation of religious sentiments creates a troubling situation where numerous individuals are imprisoned. Judges, apprehensive of potential consequences, occasionally delay legal proceedings out of fear of being seen as lenient.
The grim reality presents a distressing panorama: the frequency and intensity of these organized, violent, and often uncontrollable attacks have escalated in recent years. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has stressed the seriousness of this situation, emphasizing the urgent requirement for comprehensive intervention. Regrettably, the incident in Jaranwala follows a familiar pattern—extremist factions in Pakistan frequently seek excuses to target marginalized minority groups. It’s crucial to understand that these individuals do not represent genuine followers of Quranic teachings; their actions are not driven by sincere religious convictions. Instead, they are individuals who lack education and are manipulated by a small number of extremists, leading to tragic consequences. This distressing pattern once again unfolded in the Jaranwala Tehsil of Faisalabad.
What Transpired at Jaranwala Christian Colony?
The situation escalated when a massive crowd, consisting of thousands of individuals, descended upon the Christian colony located in Jaranwala. Their intention was to impart a lesson to the two accused brothers. These siblings were charged with disrespecting the Quran, the sacred text of Muslims. Carrying sticks, stones, and weapons, the mob created chaos. Their initial target was a church, which they set on fire, followed by assaults on nearby churches and the residences of local Christians.
Utilizing mosque loudspeakers, the mob intensified their aggression, encouraging violence and demanding the immediate arrest of the two brothers allegedly responsible for insulting the Quran. Their goal was to impose collective punishment. The turmoil persisted for hours, as reported by local media. By midday, at least eight churches had been vandalized, and their contents were set ablaze. Local Christians suspect that the actual extent of damage to the churches is even greater. This incident highlights a somber reality: extremist religious groups exploit weaknesses in governance and inadequate law enforcement strategies to target minority groups. Despite lacking official endorsement, these groups persist in assaulting minority communities. Even when governmental entities take action, their disciplinary measures often prove insufficient. Cases tend to fade away with time.
Responding to the alarming attack on places of worship belonging to the minority community in Jaranwala Tehsil of Faisalabad, the caretaker government of Punjab took steps. The police apprehended two individuals involved in inciting violence. Within the subsequent 24 hours, the provincial government initiated a comprehensive investigation into the incident. Furthermore, more than a hundred individuals were arrested in connection with the violence, signifying progress toward accountability and justice.
Preliminary Findings Report:
Based on the initial investigation into the Jarranwala incident, an astonishing total of 16 churches were set ablaze by an uncontainable mob during the violent upheaval. Alleging the desecration of the Quran, protests commenced around 8:15 am, leading to the closure of businesses. Following mosque announcements, individuals from various cities and villages converged on Jaranwala. By 11 am, the unrest intensified as protesters directed their anger towards the Christian Colony, resulting in damaged homes and churches set ablaze. To everyone’s surprise, even the assistant commissioner’s residence became a target of arson. The report additionally reveals that within the local Christian community of Isanagari, 15 houses and three more churches were set on fire. In response, the police resorted to using baton charges and tear gas to quell the disorderly situation.
Christian Families Seek Shelter in Open Spaces:
After the distressing incident, Christian families found themselves seeking shelter in fields and abandoned areas, forced to leave their homes due to the destruction and violent attacks. Some families sought refuge in the homes of relatives residing in other regions, looking for safety amid the chaos. As the situation gradually calmed in Jaranwala, families cautiously began returning to their residences. Addressing the critical situation, the Punjab government promptly established an eight-member committee with the task of assessing the extent of the damage caused by the incident. A commendable step, the provincial administration has also guaranteed compensation for the losses incurred, encompassing the damage to homes belonging to the Christian community and their possessions.
Amid Pakistan’s steadily growing population, now reaching a staggering 241 million, it is disconcerting that the actions of a relatively small number of extremists can exert such influence over the entire nation. These extremist groups possess the ability to incite attacks at their discretion, manipulating state institutions to fulfill their violent agendas. The Asia Bibi case stands as a global example of this influence, casting a somber light on recent events. By examining this backdrop, we can gain valuable insights into the current state of affairs, illuminating how and why we have reached this juncture.
Asia Bibi: An Alarming Blasphemy Case that Shook the Nation
When discussing violence against religious minorities in Pakistan, the name Asia Bibi inevitably comes to the forefront. Her blasphemy case carried such weight that it resulted in the tragic assassinations of both a Federal Minister and a provincial Governor by the hands of extremists.
Asia Bibi’s story originated in Atanwali, a modest village in Punjab’s Sheikhupura district. As is often the case in numerous Pakistani towns, the local Christian community, including the economically challenged Bibi family, found themselves confined to low-status occupations like cleaning and sweeping. A devout Catholic, Asia worked as a farm laborer in Sheikhupura to provide for her family. Married to a bricklayer and a mother of two, she faced the trials of daily life with unyielding determination.
In June 2009, while harvesting falsa fruit in a Sheikhupura field alongside other female farmworkers, Bibi was tasked with fetching water from a nearby well. Pausing to quench her thirst with an old metal cup left by the well, she unwittingly ignited a controversy. A neighbor named Musrat witnessed this act and, driven by anger, informed the other women that it was considered unacceptable for a Christian to share a container with a Muslim. This incident triggered anger among the women, who viewed Bibi as impure due to her Christian faith. When asked to convert to Islam, Bibi fearlessly stated, “I believe in my religion and in Jesus Christ, who embraced death on the cross to absolve humanity’s sins.”
Consequently, a mob descended upon her home, subjecting her and her family members to a brutal attack. The local police intervened, initiating an inquiry into her words. Local police officer Muhammad Ilyas alleged that Bibi had uttered highly offensive remarks about the Quran and the Prophet of Islam. These allegations were eventually admitted by Bibi.
Five days later, a local Muslim leader named Qari Salim pressured individuals in the vicinity to accuse Bibi of blasphemy. Failing to extract a confession from her through coercion, Salim resorted to using the mosque’s loudspeakers, urging people to force her confession. Witnessing this, the neighbors violently assaulted Bibi in front of her children. She was then held in custody for over a year before formal charges were filed against her.
Despite vehemently refuting the blasphemy accusations, Bibi was sentenced to death by Judge Muhammad Naveed Iqbal of Sheikhupura, Punjab, in November 2010. This shocking judgment marked her as the first woman in Pakistan to face execution for blasphemy.
Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, publicly announced his intention to appeal the verdict, a decision that received support from the Lahore High Court. A month later, the Governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, responded to President Asif Ali Zardari’s directive to reevaluate the case. Taseer suggested that Bibi would receive a presidential pardon if the High Court didn’t suspend the sentence. However, the High Court issued an injunction against the possibility of a presidential pardon, intensifying the turmoil surrounding the case.
Defying Conventions: Assassinations of Taseer and Bhatti
In 2011, Pakistan bore witness to two tragic assassinations that sent shockwaves throughout the nation. On January 4th, in Islamabad, Punjab Governor Salman Taseer met a grim demise. One of his own security team members, 26-year-old Malik Mumtaz Hussain Qadri, wielded an official firearm to end Taseer’s life. This startling act was a reaction to Taseer’s defense of Asia Bibi and his vocal opposition to the controversial blasphemy law.
Mumtaz Qadri’s fate was sealed when he was sentenced to death for the murder, which occurred on February 29, 2016. Governor Taseer’s courageous stance against the law and his support for Bibi’s cause made him a target, causing reverberations throughout the country.
The day following Taseer’s demise, thousands defied the warnings of the Taliban and certain clerics to pay their respects at his funeral in Lahore. This display of unity highlighted the resilience of Pakistanis, even though a smaller faction within the nation regarded the assassin as a hero.
Running parallel to this event, Shehbaz Bhatti, the Minority Affairs Minister, faced imminent danger. In June 2010, he received a chilling death threat, warning of beheading if he continued advocating for changes to blasphemy laws. Undeterred, Bhatti pledged to fight for justice and the release of Asia Bibi. However, on March 2nd, 2011, his unwavering stance exacted the ultimate price. Ambushed near his residence in Islamabad, he was fatally shot, likely due to his steadfast position on blasphemy laws.
Bhatti’s death created a void, as he was the only Christian member of the cabinet. These brutal assassinations served as stark reminders of the difficulties faced by those advocating for human rights and justice in Pakistan.
Asia Bibi Acquitted of Charges, Yet Hurdles Persist
After spending eight years in solitary confinement, Asia Bibi’s innocence was finally vindicated on October 31, 2018. Nevertheless, her exoneration triggered protests from specific religious factions. Muhammad Afzal Qadri, a prominent figure within the religious organization TLP, even went to the extent of expressing unsettling sentiments, hinting at potential violence against the judges responsible for clearing her name. His chilling statement ominously included, “The Chief Justice and two other judges deserve to be killed…either their security guards, their drivers, or their cooks kill them.”
In November 2018, a pact was brokered between the government led by Imran Khan and the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), a religious political party. This agreement led to the endorsement of protests against Asia Bibi’s acquittal. Astonishingly, the deal also imposed restrictions on Asia Bibi, preventing her from leaving the country. As part of the concession to the TLP, the government released TLP protesters who had been detained.
Under escalating pressure from the TLP, the Pakistani authorities took an unprecedented measure. They delayed releasing Asia Bibi from custody until the Supreme Court conducted a final review of its decision. This postponement in her release highlighted the profound challenges associated with advocating for justice and religious freedom in Pakistan.
Sialkot Tragedy: A Narrative Resonating with Asia Bibi’s Experience
Asia Bibi’s distressing experience as a victim of extremism in Pakistan has garnered worldwide attention. While she has since started a new chapter of her life with her family outside of Pakistan, another chilling account is emerging in the city of Sialkot—a horrifying incident involving a Sri Lankan factory manager.
Sialkot, famous for its football production for the World Cup, has become the stage for a troubling event where Sri Lankan national Priyantha Kumara Dayavadna fell victim to the same extremist forces. Kumara, a Buddhist who had been living in Pakistan for 11 years, not only lost his life due to accusations of blasphemy by extremists but also suffered the gruesome fate of having his body set ablaze.
Kumara’s tragic fate was sealed by his fellow factory workers, who accused him of blasphemy for removing a poster that contained religious content. However, it later emerged that Kumara had taken down the poster because of ongoing renovations in the factory building.
The court handed death sentences to six individuals implicated in Kumara’s brutal murder, while nine others received life imprisonment. Furthermore, 72 individuals were sentenced to two years in prison—a somber reflection of the aftermath of this tragic incident.
Upholding the Rights and Inclusion of Minorities: Ensuring Their Protection
The safeguarding of minority rights within Pakistan’s political framework is solidly embedded in Article 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan. This article provides comprehensive measures to uphold their rights. Pakistan’s dedication to its minority populace is evident through the equitable representation of all minority groups in the National and Provincial Assemblies, as well as the Senate. This balanced representation is also effectively extended to local governing bodies at the grassroots level.
Article 36 of the Constitution of Pakistan states:
“The State shall ensure the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services.”
Minorities: Integral Contributors to the Fabric of Pakistani Society
Minorities, among them the Christian community, have significantly contributed to Pakistan’s political and social advancement. Distinguished names in Pakistan’s judiciary, such as Justice Cornelius, Justice Darab Patel, and Justice Bhagwan Das, have garnered widespread respect for their contributions. The name of Joginder Nath Mandal stands alongside those of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the Founder of Pakistan, in the history of Pakistan’s freedom movement. Joginder Mandal holds the honor of presiding over the inaugural session of Pakistan’s first Constituent Assembly, a position to which he was appointed by the founder of Pakistan himself.
Pakistan, boasting a substantial population of 241 million, is predominantly inhabited by progressive Muslims who embrace modernity. These individuals opt for contemporary clothing, enroll their children in English-speaking educational institutions, and aspire to send them abroad for higher studies. However, a minor segment within this society allows their fervent religious zeal to overshadow rationality, resulting in a scenario where the entire system appears somewhat powerless against their influence. This challenge is exacerbated by Pakistan’s fragile judicial system, ranking among the lowest performers on a global scale.
The struggle against extremism in Pakistan often finds an unwitting accomplice in its flawed district administration. Regrettably, this administrative body lacks the means to rein in extremist groups and seemingly only serves the interests of corrupt political leaders. Its main function appears to be the granting of favors, rendering effective governance a distant goal. Adding to the complexity are Pakistan’s feeble political leaders, who frequently prioritize their personal interests over the task of curbing extremism. Instead of exercising control over these groups, they form transient alliances, hoping to capitalize on the street influence of religious extremists in upcoming elections. Paradoxically, this approach inadvertently bolsters the very groups they intend to manage.
Further complicating matters is Pakistan’s shockingly low literacy rate, even in the 21st century. Impoverished families, struggling to provide for their large households, turn to religious institutions that offer sustenance and free religious education. Donations to these institutions come from individuals who, rather than addressing issues with their business practices, seek redemption through acts of charity.
To foster religious tolerance in Pakistan, a sweeping educational initiative must be launched, aiming to provide equal educational opportunities to every citizen. Without this effort, places of worship will remain susceptible to attacks, and individuals will continue to endure acts of violence. The words of Pakistan’s founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, resonate with contemporary significance:
“We are starting with the fundamental principle that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one state. No matter what is his color, caste or creed, is first, second and last a citizen of this state with equal rights, privileges and obligations… Pakistan will provide its minorities an ample field for the outlet of their genius and they should come forward and play their role as true citizens in making Pakistan one of the greatest nations.”
Image – Authors own