At least seven Christians were burned alive and hundreds injured in an attack in Gojra this past Saturday, after violence erupted in the Punjab town over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran several days before. Dawn reported, “More than 50 houses were set on fire and a place of worship belonging to a minority community was damaged by an angry mob. According to sources, most of the houses were burnt by a group of youths who had their faces covered with veils. They threw petrol bombs and fired indiscriminately.”
Father Shabbir Bashir told the AFP, “Two children – a brother and sister aged six and 13 – their parents and 75-year-old grandfather were burnt to death after the mob locked them inside a room of their house...How we can feel safe and secure in such a country? They killed us. They ransacked our houses. They looted our homes. How we can feel protected?”
Although Pakistani authorities arrested 200 people after the incident, and offered $6,000 [500,000 rupees] in compensation to the victims’ families, the Christian Science Monitor reported their response “failed to dampen accusations from Christians that the police neglected to protect them.” A consensus was reached among Christian leaders in Gojra to observe three days of mourning, from Monday to Wednesday, for this attack. All schools, colleges, missions and educational institutions run by Christians will remain closed these three days, and “Christians in Gojra will mark Aug. 11 – traditionally celebrated as Pakistan’s minority day – as a “black day” of mourning,” reported the Monitor.
It is not enough to bring these perpetrators to justice. The government must also understand and begin to address the root and underlying causes behind such incidents. Violence against Pakistan’s minorities [According to the CIA Factbook, only 3% of Pakistanis are minorities - mainly Hindus and Christians] is not uncommon; in fact, Minority Rights Group International found that Pakistan had the world’s highest increase of threats against minorities last year and was ranked the seventh most dangerous country for minorities overall. Saturday’s violence in Gojra marked the third attack on Pakistani Christians in the past month, noted the Monitor.
According to police officials, the violence was incited by members of the Sipah-e-Sahba Pakistan, a militant Sunni sectarian group founded in the 1980s by a cleric who wanted Pakistan to be officially declared as a Sunni Islamist state. The group is said to have strongholds in southern districts of Punjab, particularly Jhang. Moreover, noted the CS Monitor, the SSP “was originally an anti-Shiite organization and was funded in the past by Pakistan’s intelligence services to wage war in Kashmir,” [also see related CHUP post on the Punjabi Taliban].
After sifting through the related news reports, it seems the SSP exploited the situation to carry out further violence against minorities. According to CNN, police said the demonstrators on Saturday “were protesting an alleged desecration of pages in the Quran…at a Christian wedding.” However, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities, told reporters that an investigation “determined there was no desecration of the Quran in village 95 Gill near Gojra City, and the allegations were baseless.”
The desecration of the Quran is part of Pakistan’s blasphemy law. The law, introduced in 1977, mandates that any “blasphemies” of the Muslim Holy Book be met with punishment (life imprisonment or death). However, because of the ambiguity associated with such legislation, human rights activists say it has been manipulated by extremists in order to persecute religious minorities, [Sana Saleem has some great details about the law over at her blog]. The LA Times, which reported on the persecution of Christians in Pakistan last year, noted:
A 2007 U.S. State Department report said that no person in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy. But in May, a Christian man already imprisoned for two years was sentenced to death. His crime: He told a group of Muslims to lower their noise because his family was mourning the loss of his nephew, whose body was laid out in his home. The men accused him of blasphemy.
In the aftermath of Saturday’s violence, Pakistan’s leaders passed a resolution condemning the incident and vowed to bring the perpetrators to justice. While the victims of this attack deserve justice, they also deserve more than lawmakers writing letters of how very angry they are [a la Team America]. Not one of Pakistan’s politicians decried the very law that first incited the violence, or the fact that it was manipulated to justify the attack. This is not the first time the blasphemy law has been used to legitimize sectarian violence and prejudice, and it will not be the last.
Moreover, I hope the press attention surrounding the Gojra burning sheds further light on the overarching situation of Pakistan’s minorities. Below, is a great piece by France 24 English, which reported on the Christians living in Islamabad, noting that 5,000 live in extreme poverty: