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After Jaranwala, Calls for Collective Response to Tackle Minority Persecution

Condemnations of attacks on Christian community ring hollow amidst authorities’ failure to implement court orders for protection of minorities’ rights

by Sumeera Riaz

Screengrab of the mob looting and setting fire to a Christian home in Jaranwala

Brutal mob violence in Faisalabad’s Jaranwala district following blasphemy allegations against two Christian men has once again raised questions over the state’s inability to protect minorities and guarantee them their constitutional right to freedom of religion. Amidst condemnations from government and civil society alike, questions have also arisen over the repeated failure of successive regimes in countering the persecution now embedded within Pakistani society, despite years-old court orders requiring the same.

On Aug. 16, local clerics incited a mob of hundreds to attack churches and homes of Christians in Jaranwala after a sweeper and his brother were accused of desecrating the holy Quran. The ensuing violence resulted in 22 churches being torched, causing damages of Rs. 29.1 million. The mob also ransacked 91 homes of the Christian community, costing Rs. 38.5 million, according to a report prepared by the Faisalabad district administration. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the trauma inflicted on the district’s Christians is immeasurable. “I am still reeling from the shock,” said Ahsan Fazal, a sweeper in a local hospital, whose home was torched in the rioting. “My heart skips a beat with the very thought of what could have happened to my family,” he told the Standard, noting he had been at work when the riots commenced.

“I received a call from my sister about the mob entering our locality. My first response was to ask my family to abandon our home, leaving behind all valuables and belongings,” he said, adding that while their lives had been spared, the fear left by the mob remained. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time the Christian minority has been targeted by the country’s Muslim majority. From the Gojra riots of 2009 to Lahore’s Joseph Colony in 2013, not to mention various terror attacks and false blasphemy allegations, the minority community has been repeatedly under fire. None of these cases, however, have led to exemplary punishments that serve as warning to violent mobs and their instigators.

In 2013, the Supreme Court took suo motu notice of a twin suicide bombing at the All Saints Church in Peshawar, which killed 127 people and injured over 250 others. In its ruling, the court ordered the federal government to establish a task force to promote tolerance and curtail hate speech; form a National Council for Minorities; and establish a special police force for the protection of minorities’ worship sites. The order remains unimplemented to this day, despite the apex court establishing, in 2019, a one-man commission of Dr. Suddle to enforce it.

Non-serious response

Speaking with the Standard, Suddle laments that minorities’ concerns have remained unaddressed largely due to indifference from various governments. In 2020, apprising the apex court of his progress, he said the Religious Affairs Ministry had formed a separate commission headed by its own secretary, and comprised almost entirely of Muslims, to enact its orders. This, predictably, accomplished nothing.

“The commission has written to the Religious Affairs Ministry several times to expedite the process but has received no response,” he regretted, stressing that the need-of-the-hour was a National Action Plan—patterned after the policy enacted after the 2014 APS attack—to harmonize all federating units’ response to the persecution of minorities. Recalling that he had been chairing a meeting of police chiefs, chief secretaries, additional secretaries and home secretaries on the day of the Jaranwala incident, he said they had informed him that the Supreme Court’s direction for a special task force to promote tolerance had yet to be implemented because the Religious Affairs Ministry rarely holds meetings on this subject. At the same time, he lamented, the continuous reshuffling of the bureaucracy left little time for officials to pursue policies that could tackle prevailing issues.

The commission, he said, should be empowered to take to task institutions that fail to comply with court orders. He further proposed the re-formation of a separate ministry for minorities to address all crimes against minorities. “We can’t even protest at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, as our commissions do not meet the criteria laid down by relevant U.N. conventions,” he added.

Awaiting compensation

For the victims of the Jaranwala incident, the key concern right now is rebuilding homes left in ruins by the violent mob. Earlier this week, caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar visited Faisalabad to express his solidarity with the Christian community, distributing checques of Rs. 2 million eachc for affected families. Unfortunately, as with most such initiatives, the vast majority of recipients say they have been told the funds are not yet available.

Asher Masih, a father of five, told the Standard that his family had yet to even receive a promissory checque, much less actual funds, to rebuild his home. “My house was burnt completely and we fled to escape the attackers only to return to a scene of destruction,” he said, noting the structure was now uninhabitable and looked like it collapse at any point.

Another victim, Shahzad Masih, said the checques were being granted for houses, not victims, noting his family had lived in a house—now burnet to ash—alongside six other families. Rather than separate compensation for all of them, he said, they had jointly received a checque of R. 2 million to cover all their needs. The criteria for the compensation needs to be transparent, he said, adding the overall community is currently living in fear of similar incidents erupting in future over similarly unverified blasphemy allegations.

Abid Masih, whose home was ransacked, echoed these views, saying serious and urgent measures were required to prevent such incidents from reoccurring. “We can rebuild our houses with the compensation given by the government, but what about the death and despair that now haunts us?” he questioned.

Seeking court intervention

In a bid to tackle this fear, Biship Samuel Maksan Payare of the Implementation of Minority Rights Forum has approached the Supreme Court seeking the implementation of its order to ensure the protection of minorities’ rights. If the order were implemented earlier, he claims, the Jaranwala incident would not have happened—a view also echoed by Tahir Ashrafi, the chief of the Pakistan Ulema Council.

Speaking with Standard, Samuel described the Jaranwala incident as “organized chaos” facilitated by the local government and police. “They could have averted the crisis, but they let it happen despite the Christian community’s warnings,” he said. “This wasn’t just professional negligence and incompetence, it was a crime, a brutality perpetrated by police and no excuse can make up for the losses and horrors which we will have to live with till our deaths.”

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