News 21 Aug 2023

Pakistan: 1,000 frightened and homeless Christians forced to sleep rough

Nearly 1,000 panic-stricken Christians in Pakistan spent the night in sugar cane fields, having narrowly escaped rampaging mobs who set about targeting their homes, destroying everything down to the last lightbulb.

Reporting back from a visit to Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, where Islamists (on Wednesday 16 August) carried out a wave of terror, sources close to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said 21 places of worship had been attacked, many of them torched. 

The ACN source, who cannot be named for safety reasons, said that over a wide area, both rural and urban, Christian homes had been singled out for attack in what he said bore all the hallmarks of a pre-meditated act of violence. He said: “Many of the families spent the night in sugar cane fields – up to 1,000 people. They had been running away, trying to find somewhere where they could rest. Some of them went back to their homes desperate for something to eat but when they got home, they found everything destroyed – nothing to sit on, nothing to drink out of, not even a lightbulb.”

Describing the comprehensive targeting of churches of all denominations, he said: “In the churches they have attacked, everything is destroyed… the altar, statues – nothing is left. What they did to the statues of Jesus and Mary I cannot begin to describe.”

The ACN contact said that when he arrived in Jaranwala, police advised him to remove the rosary handing in his windscreen, warning that he might return to find the car destroyed or missing. He said: “As we travelled around the area, we could see how the Christians’ homes were scattered – 50 or 60 here, two or three over there and yet every Christian home has been targeted, nothing left.” 

His comments come after Archbishop Benny Travas released a letter, sent to ACN, condemning the violence and criticising the authorities’ record on justice for Christians suffering acts of violence. He said: “Once again, we have the same old condemnations and visits by the politicians and other government officials expressing their solidarity with the Christian community and that ‘justice will be done’ but in reality nothing materialises and all is forgotten.”

Describing how the riots were sparked by allegations of blasphemy in Jaranwala, Archbishop Travas said: “As head of the Catholic Christian community residing in Karachi, I just cannot comprehend how my people would show disrespect to any religion or to any religious books. 

“We as a Christian community have time and again displayed our fidelity to the nation of Pakistan and yet incidents like… Jaranwala show that we are in reality second-class citizens to be terrorised and frightened at will.” 

Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, and President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, described yesterday’s attacks as “an abhorrent act that contradicts the very essence of peace, respect and tolerance that our nation strives to uphold. “I urgently call upon the Punjab Government to take swift, decisive and resolute action against those responsible for perpetrating this heinous act. The culprits must be identified, apprehended and brought to justice.” 

The archbishops’ remarks come as Punjab caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi today (Thursday) promised to restore all affected churches and homes within a few days. Meanwhile, according to local reports, 3,000 police including elite forces have been deployed to the area. As of late last night, local police reported making 700 arrests. The district administrators have imposed a seven-day ban on all forms of assembly, except those organised by the government. 

The Punjab government has ordered an inquiry to investigate the incident, with terms set by caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq.   

- By John Pontifex 

Featured Image: Homeless Christians sleeping in fields following the attacks in Pakistan. Copyright: Aid to the Church in Need.

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