Around 15 church buildings have been attacked and hundreds of Christian homes destroyed after extremists went on the rampage in Pakistan.
Christians from the Punjab town of Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, fled as mobs began throwing rocks and stones and setting fire to buildings.
Videos and messages from local residents on social media suggested that the mobs were stirred up by reports, broadcast over local mosque loudspeakers, of the alleged desecration of religious scriptures by two local Christian residents.
The two accused have been charged with insulting Islam and defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed. While a heavy contingent of police reached the area and assured the growing mob that the suspects would be apprehended and would face action under the law, videos showed the crowds proceeding to attack the colony, demanding to execute the two men themselves.
Speaking on Wednesday to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Abid Tanveer, vicar general of Faisalabad Catholic diocese, reported back from a visit to Jaranwala where he said it was still unsafe:
“This situation has been very terrifying. The Christians are very scared. Please pray for our people, pray that their lives may be protected.
“So many people have lost their belongings, everything. They don’t know what to do or where to go.”
One Christian cleric said up to 2000 people had so far fled their homes.
Father Tanveer reported that 13 churches belonging to different Christian denominations had been attacked, a number of them torched, as well as a catechist’s house and a parish house.
He said that Father Khalid, parish priest of St Paul’s, Jaranwala, had to lock himself inside the parish house as extremists surrounded it, shouting and demanding he come out.
Eventually they left, enabling the priest to leave and shortly after the attackers returned and torched baptismal, marriage and death certificates held in the parish office.
According to local witnesses contacted by ACN, the attackers began throwing furniture out into the streets while calling for the murder of the alleged blasphemer.
A Christian in Faisalabad told ACN: “It is absolutely terrifying. We do not know what is going to happen next.”
Another leading clergy from Faisalabad said: “We totally condemn this act of brutal terrorism.
“The people who attack innocent Christians and burned their homes have a mindset of terrorism.”
A senior priest told ACN that the threat had not passed and people remained “very frightened.
“We are so grateful for your concern and your prayers. Please keep praying for us.”
The charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) says Christian residents of the colony and adjoining Christian villages are continuing to flee for fear of further attacks. A local Christian resident said families from at least over 500 homes have fled three Christian settlements.
A mob also ransacked the Salvation Army Church in the colony, one of the oldest churches in the area, and reportedly set it on fire.
Local residents told CSW 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 exit and entry points to the city have been sealed. Christian institutions and churches in adjoining cities have been closed in an attempt to avoid further attacks.
CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: ‘The news today from Jaranwala of yet another attack on an entire community because of a blasphemy allegation is deeply worrying. While blasphemy accusations affect Pakistanis of all faiths, cases against minorities routinely lead to the violent targeting of the wider community of the accused. It is unacceptable that the police did not act swiftly to prevent the violence in Jaranwala, which was entirely predictable. The lessons of past episodes of violence have still not been learnt. CSW condemns these attacks and calls upon the Pakistani government to do more to increase security in the area without delay, to support those who have fled, and to arrest those inciting and carrying out the violence, so that mob justice does not prevail.’