Islamabad, Pakistan – Armed mobs have attacked at least two churches in Punjab province’s Jaranwala town accusing two Christian residents of blasphemy.
Videos on social media showed hundreds of people armed with batons and sticks attacking the Salvation Army Church and the Saint Paul Catholic Church, setting them ablaze, while another mob attacked private homes, torching them and breaking windows.
Mohammed Naved, a Punjab provincial police inspector, said authorities were doing their best to control the mob in Jaranwala, 115 km (71 miles) from Lahore, the provincial capital.
“We are undertaking all legal measures as required in the situation,” Naved told Al Jazeera.
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Police also filed a report against two local Christian residents under Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Words fail me as I write this. We, Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed at the Jaranwala incident in the Faisalabad District in Pakistan. A church building is being burnt as I type this message. Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been… pic.twitter.com/xruE83NPXL
— Bishop Azad Marshall (@BishopAzadM) August 16, 2023
Later on Wednesday, Punjab’s caretaker information minister, Amir Mir, said that more than 100 people were arrested.
Paramilitary Rangers have been deployed “in connection with the religious conflict and sensitive situation of law and order at Tehsil Jaranwala District Faisalabad”, according to an official statement.
The controversy erupted after torn pages of the Quran, the holy book for Muslims, were discovered near the Christian colony with alleged blasphemous content written on them.
The pages were taken to a local religious leader, who reportedly urged Muslims to protest and demand that the culprits be arrested.
Shahid Mehmood, a resident of Jaranwala who owns a mobile shop about 50 metres from the Salvation Army Church, told Al Jazeera, “I reached my shop around 10am, and there were already hundreds of people gathered outside the church. Given the situation, I decided to close 10 minutes after opening.”
Mehmood added that a crowd also gathered around the Christian colony near the church. It was later attacked, and a few smaller churches were damaged, he said.
Akmal Bhatti, chairman of Minorities Alliance Pakistan, condemned the incident and said the angry mob used the blasphemy laws to justify torching the private homes of innocent people.
Bhatti, a lawyer, said more than 150 families resided in the Christian colony near the Salvation Army Church, and as the situation worsened, women and children evacuated.
“As things looked tense, families started leaving Jaranwala to go to their relatives in a nearby village, or the city of Faisalabad, which is roughly 40km [24 miles] away,” he told Al Jazeera from Jaranwala.
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Pakistan as mere accusations can lead to widespread violence.
Earlier this month, a teacher was killed in Turbat in the southern province of Balochistan after being accused of blasphemy during a lecture. In February this year, an angry mob snatched a suspect from his prison cell in the rural district of Nankana and lynched him for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran.
Rights groups say Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have often been used for personal reasons.
Centre for Social Justice, an independent group advocating for the rights of minorities, has compiled data on blasphemy cases in Pakistan, which shows more than 2,000 people have been accused of blasphemy since 1987, and at least 88 people have been killed on these allegations.