Pakistan arrests 146 as it launches probe into church attacks

More than 6,000 police and paramilitary troops deployed to control mob violence as Christian community reels in shock over attacks.

Pakistan church
At least five churches belonging to Jaranwala's Christian community were torched, community leaders said [Ghazanfar Majid/AFP]

Authorities in Pakistan have launched a probe and arrested at least 146 people in the Punjab province a day after a Muslim mob torched five churches and attacked dozens of houses belonging to the local Christian community over claims of blasphemy, the province’s top police official has told Al Jazeera.

“We are continuing our operations to detain others involved,” Inspector General of Punjab Police Usman Anwar said on Thursday, a day after hundreds of people went on a rampage attacking Christian properties and places of worship in Jaranwala city in Faisalabad district – about 115 kilometres (71 miles) southwest of the provincial capital, Lahore.

Local reports said torn pages of the Quran, with alleged blasphemous content written on them, were discovered near Jaranwala’s Isa Nagri (Christian colony) area, triggering one of the worst spells of violence against the minority community in recent years.

The Salvation Army Church in Jaranwala was among the five churches vandalised. Videos on social media showed a handful of men on the roof of the church, the largest in the city, attacking its front facade and attempting to dislodge the cross on top. Some of the purported videos on X showed police officials standing amid the crowd of onlookers as the attackers continued vandalising the churches.

Houses, businesses and graveyards belonging to the Christian community were also targeted as violence gripped the city of 230,000.

Thousands of additional police and paramilitary troops have been deployed to control the violence in the South Asian nation, which has been facing an unprecedented political and economic crisis.

Punjab’s Information Minister Amir Mir claimed that an initial investigation into the alleged desecration of the Quran revealed the incident was a “well thought-out conspiracy to inflame public sentiments”. He did not elaborate on his claims.

“Security of the churches has been tightened and a large number of security personnel have been deployed,” Mir said in a series of posts on X, the social platform formerly known as Twitter.

Farooq Masih, a truck artist who lives next to one of the churches in Jaranwala, said he was shaken by the violence.

“My entire house is completely torched, there is nothing left there that could be salvaged. I don’t even have a chair to sit on. Everything has turned to ashes,” Masih, 47, told Al Jazeera.

“I live in this house with my three brothers, and we have a total of 19 members in this house. I don’t have any idea what are we going to do now, all we have is just faith in God.”

Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar condemned the violence and called for action against those involved in the attacks.

“I am gutted by the visuals coming out of Jaranwala, Faisalabad. Stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities,” said Kakar in a post on X.

Calls to repeal blasphemy law

The United States said it was “deeply concerned” about the violent incident and urged Pakistan to investigate the attack.

“We are deeply concerned that churches and homes were targeted in response to reported Quran desecration in Pakistan,” State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said during his press briefing.

Several local and international rights organisations also spoke out against the violence. “There is no space in Islam for violence,” Tahir Mahmood Ashrafi, the Chairman of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, posted on X.

Rehab Mahamoor, the South Asia researcher for Amnesty International, called on authorities to “urgently ensure the protection of the minority Christian community in Jaranwala is in accordance to their needs and wishes”.

Rabiya Javeri Agha, the chairperson of Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights, said the incident was “not an isolated one” and “attacks against minorities and vulnerable groups have been happening repeatedly with impunity”.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the state had “failed to protect its religious minorities” and “allowed the far right to permeate and fester within society and politics”.

Blasphemy remains one of the most sensitive topics in Pakistan, where even mere allegations of committing the crime can trigger violence.

International and local rights groups have said that accusations of blasphemy are often wielded to settle personal scores, with Pakistan’s minorities often bearing the brunt.

“The existence of blasphemy laws continue[s] to embolden groups and individuals who threaten, attack or attempt to kill the accused, or anyone connected, including members of their community,” Amnesty’s Mahamoor said in a statement.

She called on authorities to repeal the law and put in place “effective safeguards” against its abuse.

Number of blasphemy cases rising

Use of the blasphemy law remained rare in the decades following Pakistan’s independence from British colonial rule, with just 10 judgments relating to offences against religion reported until 1977, according to a report by the International Commission of Jurists.

In 1974, however, then-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government oversaw the introduction of a constitutional amendment that declared members of the Ahmadiyya sect “non-Muslim”.

Between 1980 and 1986, the military government of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq further strengthened the laws, adding five new clauses, all specific to Islam and criminalising offences such as defiling the Holy Quran, insulting Islam’s prophet or using “derogatory” language against certain religious figures.

During ul-Haq’s rule, from 1978-1988, the number of cases skyrocketed, with more than 80 blasphemy cases filed in that period, according to the Center for Research and Security Studies, an Islamabad-based think tank.

That trend continued through the 1990s, in particular after a controversial higher Islamic court decision in 1991 that made the imposition of the death penalty mandatory for the crime of insulting Islam’s prophet.

Between 2011 and 2015, the latest period for which consolidated data is available, there were more than 1,296 blasphemy cases filed in Pakistan.

Source: Al Jazeera