Garanwala, Pakistan – Reena Javed Bhatti sat in a narrow street among a group of 20 to 25 worshipers, many of them weeping profusely, as Reverend Javed Bhatti delivered his sermon in a Christian colony in northern Pakistan.
“We thank Almighty God for protecting us, for looking after us, and He is the one who will help us get back on our feet,” the pastor said on Sunday, while some of the attendees, mostly women, chanted “Glory be to God” with tears and sweat pouring down their faces in the hot summer weather. and wet.
Sunday was the first Mass since Christian homes and places of worship in Garanwala city in Punjab province were attacked on August 16 by a Muslim mob over allegations of blasphemy.
The rows of houses lining the narrow street were the scene of Thursday’s arson attack, littered with charred walls of homes, burnt motorcycles, damaged furniture and charred household items. St. John’s Catholic Church on the next street was in ruins.
Rina, 31, and her family fled, like most people in the area, before the mob broke out, burning homes and churches and, in many cases, taking household valuables.
“We built our house brick by brick, but when we came back, we found ashes. The attackers burned and looted the homes of innocent people,” she told Al Jazeera.
Residents and officials told Al Jazeera that the violence began after torn pages of the Holy Qur’an and some pages with insulting statements about Islam written on them were found about 100 meters from Rina’s house. The author of this alleged blasphemy was allegedly identified by his name, photograph and phone number on a newspaper.
‘Unconfirmed allegations of blasphemy’
Rev. Javed recalls that it was nearing 6 am on August 16 when he heard a commotion in the street. As he was leaving, he saw people standing outside his neighbor’s house to confront the suspect, who denied desecration of the Qur’an.
The 41-year-old priest says he tried to talk to Muslims living in the neighbourhood, asking them why someone would reveal their identity after committing such a “heinous crime”.
“We have a peace committee in the neighborhood and the Muslims said they would start a dialogue that would include a clergyman at a local mosque as well, but the news really started spreading on social media like wildfire,” he told Al Jazeera as he sat on a chariot. (bed) outside his burning house.
He says a local mosque’s announcement of the protest and attack fueled the anger.
Blasphemy is a very sensitive issue in Pakistan, where people accused of insulting Islam have been executed in the past or sentenced to harsh punishments including the death penalty.
And in 2021, a Sri Lankan factory manager was summarily executed in the city of Sialkot, about 200 kilometers north of Garanwala, for blasphemy. It later turned out that this claim was false.
In another case, a mob destroyed more than 100 homes belonging to the Christian community in the eastern city of Lahore over allegations of blasphemy in 2013. In 2020, a Christian man accused of this crime was acquitted by a court.
Human rights groups say such violence is often exacerbated by unverified allegations, and in most cases by personal animosity.
Rev. Javed says the allegations were a signal to start warning local Christian community leaders to leave their homes immediately for safer places. He and more than 100 families living in the Christian colony were forced to flee Garanwala, which is located about 115 km (71 miles) northwest of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Christian-Muslim relations eroded
Community members took refuge in factories, open fields, and other nearby villages when mobs attacked their homes.
“We’ve lived in this neighborhood for over five decades, and I can tell you we’ve never been discriminated against on the basis of religion, let alone faced with such a serious accusation of blasphemy,” says the pastor.
“But I know the history. I know the damage such allegations can cause.”
Sahar Miskim, who fled with eight members of her family, returned two days later – her scheduled wedding day – to see her house destroyed.
“I made my dowry out of my own money, which I earned over three years by sewing clothes. Everything we had was either stolen or burned. I have nothing left, not even my engagement ring,” she told Al Jazeera.
Faisal Afzal, a Muslim who lives in the same neighborhood, said he had never heard of any quarrels or disagreements with his Christian neighbours.
“Those who caused this were not from our region. “They don’t understand the lasting damage we have to deal with,” the 35-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Afzal said the violence had eroded trust between the two communities.
She accused the police of delaying the procedures
Once the authorities were informed of the situation on August 16, Mohammed Riaz, the police official in the area, said they called a meeting between Christian and Muslim leaders at around 8 am to defuse the situation.
Riad said the leaders of both communities supported the police’s efforts to calm the situation. He added that a crowd of more than 500 Muslims gathered near the Christian settlement outnumbered the police.
“The crowd consisted mostly of young men and teenagers carrying clubs and sticks. “By 9 or 10 am, with passions running high, mobs attacked churches and homes of Christians,” the police official said.
Police said the crowd included residents and people from nearby villages, as well as some belonging to religious parties.
Video clips that appeared on social media showed dozens of young men descending on the Salvation Army church near the Christian Colony, a red building built before the country’s independence in 1947.
The men were chanting slogans associated with Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan, a far-right party. In multiple videos, they can be seen climbing the roof of the church, destroying the cross and setting the building on fire.
Another video shows hundreds of men pouring into the main street of the Christian colony, attacking and burning St. John’s Catholic Church as well as nearby homes – while the police stood by.
The flag of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Labaik party was also found lying near the altar of the Full Gospel Assemblies church, one of 21 destroyed churches visited by the island. But the party denied involvement in the attacks and said it was at the forefront of efforts to ease tensions.
More than 100 people arrested
The attacks against Christians drew widespread condemnation within Pakistan, prompting the interim government to ensure swift action against the perpetrators.
So far, the authorities have arrested more than 150 people for vandalism. Police have also arrested two brothers – Rocky and Raja – who are accused of blasphemy. Raja’s name was reportedly written on the pages of the profane Qur’an.
The regional government also announced compensation of 2 million rupees ($24,000) for those who lost their homes, while also promising to rebuild all damaged churches.
According to estimates from the Punjab province, nearly 100 houses and at least 22 churches within a radius of eight kilometers were either completely or partially destroyed, causing damage estimated at 70 million rupees ($233,000).
Police say they did their best to deal with the situation and prevent the deaths.
“I know the property losses are massive, but at least they can still be replaced and repaired. We wanted to make sure that people’s lives remain out of danger,” Osman Akram Gondal, a senior police official, told Al Jazeera.
But activists and researchers have accused the authorities of acting too slowly to prevent rumors from spreading on social media.
According to Bytes for All, an Islamabad-based think tank, Facebook and Twitter were used primarily to “spark violence” after accusations of blasphemy arose, and then spread across other platforms including TikTok and YouTube.
“Our monitoring shows that about a million people were reached through Twitter and Facebook posts about the incident,” Shahzad Ahmed, the country director of Bites for All, told Al Jazeera.
Meanwhile, back in the Christian colony, Jan Masih says he doesn’t know if he will be able to rebuild his home.
“Are we going to feed our children, or save money to build it again?” said Masih, who works as a cleaner.
But for the 39-year-old, the incident also damaged the trust he shared with his Muslim neighbours.
“Our colony was a model of peace and unity. But this incident took us back centuries. I don’t feel safe or secure here anymore.”