Photo: Residents of Joseph Colony, Lahore trusted police to protect their homes after they were ordered to evacuate (M. Ali)
LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Christians living in tents here after Muslims destroyed more than 175 homes following a blasphemy accusation are disillusioned that authorities have not compensated them, but for some the greatest pain is what cannot be replaced.
“I am still unable to recover from the trauma after seeing my house burnt down completely,” said one elderly woman, Meraj Bibi. “It takes ages to build a house and make it into home, but these cruel people shattered our lives within minutes.”
The two streets leading to predominantly Christian Joseph Colony are packed with white and yellow tents, most donated by the Al-Khair Foundation, a British Muslim charity, and the Sindh-based “secular” political party, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM).
Christians of Joseph Colony lost their homes after police ordered them to leave the area in anticipation of rioting by local Muslims this month. About 3,000 Muslims gathered outside Joseph Colony on March 9, furious over an alleged remark against Islam by a Christian, Sawan Masih, in an earlier discussion with his Muslim drinking buddy, barber Shahid Imran.
"They [the police] said that the mobs could harm our daughters, so we should vacate our houses immediately,” said Monica, mother of a 2-year-old and wife of a sanitation worker. “We trusted them and thought that they would protect our belongings, but the next day we saw our homes turn into ashes.”
Another resident, Parveen Bibi, told Morning Star News that she and her family had lived in Joseph Colony for 40 years.
“My husband and sons are sanitation workers – we keep the city clean, we keep the people’s homes clean, and yet this is how we are acknowledged,” she said. “They even took the jewelry we had collected for our daughter’s wedding. And here we are now, sitting in a tent wondering when we’ll be able to sleep in our homes.”
In spite of Masih’s arrest in the wee morning hours of March 9, the mob robbed and torched more than 175 houses, two church buildings and dozens of shops and vehicles (see Morning Star News, March 11). Masih was arrested under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which calls for death or life imprisonment for those accused of blaspheming Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.
The Lahore district government has set up 185 tents for the displaced families. Layers of coiled barbed wire and a heavy police contingent protect the entrances to the camps set up for the residents of Joseph Colony, an impoverished Christian area of nearly 200 families. Residents are determined to start their lives afresh, but they say the most difficult challenge is getting free of fear.
“It would be great if we could have a city of our own – here I will always live in fear that someone might just accuse me of blasphemy,” said Nasreen, a teenage girl sitting in a tent eating biscuits.
On the other side of Lahore, some residents of the predominantly Christian area of Youhanabad told Morning Star News that police unleashed force on youths when they gathered to protest against the Joseph Colony arson.
“The police fired nearly 500 tear-gas shells in our area – they beat our boys ruthlessly,” said Bashir Masih, a mason. “Why didn’t they use their batons and tear gas when our homes were being burnt in Joseph Colony?”
Immediately after the attack, the Punjab chief minister announced immediate compensation to families that lost their homes. Compensation checks of 500,000 rupees delivered to residents, however, failed to clear.
“The Punjab government handed over the checks to us on Monday (March 11), and we deposited them in banks the next day,” said Haneef Masih, a worker in an iron factory. “It’s been over one week, but the checks haven’t been cleared.”
Punjab Chief Minister Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif also promised reconstruction of destroyed homes in just four days. On Wednesday (March 20), he told media that renovation of 60 houses had been completed, with work on the remainder to be finished by Saturday (March 23).
Sen. Kamran Michael of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) told Morning Star News that the Punjab government was determined to present reconstructed houses to affected families by March 23.
“Most of the houses have been reconstructed and handed over to the people,” he said. “Their compensation checks are also being cleared, and things should be back to normal before Easter.”
Engineer Nek Alam said it could take more than a month to reconstruct and/or renovate houses.
“Some houses need to be reconstructed completely,” he said. “That will obviously take us longer than the chief minister’s announced March 23 deadline.”
The devastation has sunk the already sullied reputation of the Punjab provincial government, a Christian rights activist said.
“It is a national shame, and obviously the PML-N government cannot risk more flak over its indifferent attitude towards Christians – first Shanti Nagar, then Gojra and now Joseph Colony,” he said. “Everyone knows who stopped the police from taking action against the mobs, yet no one would speak against them. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is a traditionally ally of radical Islamic outfits, some of which have unleashed deadly terrorist attacks against the country’s minorities, especially Hazara Shias, Ahmadis and Christians.”
At the same time, Christians of Joseph Colony and across Pakistan have acknowledged the relief efforts and moral support extended to them by moderate Muslims and the national media for highlighting and strongly condemning the assault.
“Our heads are bowed in shame – it’s unfortunate that such religious bigots are breeding in our country,” a young Muslim man told Morning Star News as he distributed juice and rice in plastic bags. “They are not just enemies of minorities, but of the entire country. I’m here to tell my Christian countrymen that all Muslims are not the same, and we will stand by you in your hour of need.”
Michael said the government would ensure stern punishment to the perpetrators of the incident.
“Unlike Gojra, this time the state is the complainant in the case,” he said. “All the accused have been booked under non-bailable sections, and we will not let them go scot-free.”
A First Information Report (FIR) has been registered against at least 83 people, including the accuser, Imran, under various sections – including 295-A of the blasphemy statute, for burning church buildings and desecrating Bibles. Imran has yet to be arrested, however, and rights activists said precedent suggests there is little chance of prosecution of the ones already in custody.
Residents concur that Masih and Imran were drunk when they spoke to each other on March 7. But Masih’s family members deny that the two were discussing religion.
“We think that the local factory owners are behind this incident,” said Masih’s brother, Babar Masih. “Our brother and Imran were supporting rival groups for the trade union election scheduled for March 20 [now postponed].”
A related theory circulating among residents holds that an attempted land grab by factory owners spurred the blasphemy allegation. Several residents told Morning Star News that factory owners had been pressuring them to sell their homes so that the businesses could expand.
“We would have considered it if the offers were lucrative enough, but these people wanted us to sell them our homes for peanuts,” said one resident, Barkat Masih. “These offers started coming in almost four years ago, but we didn’t give in to their demands. I’m sure these factory owners are behind this incident.”
Sawan Masih’s house lay at the front perimeter of Joseph Colony, on a street with several iron furnaces and warehouses, and his family was among those pressured to sell their property.
“They accused Sawan of blasphemy, but have they not committed the same act by burning our churches and setting fire to our Bibles?” Barkat Masih said. “The Muslims have ruined us.”
Bishop Azad Marshall, chairman of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan, told Morning Star News that church leaders were considering ways to engage Muslim religious and political leaders in discussions aimed at stopping misuse of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The laws have frequently been misused as revenge for other conflicts. In Masih’s case, the FIR does not even mention the alleged blasphemous remark.
“The government should deter people from falsely accusing innocent people of blasphemy by prosecuting them under the same laws if they fail to prove their allegation,” said Marshall.
A government commission teaming a Christian lawyer with a Muslim judge has been tasked with investigating the incident, he added.
Since the Shanti Nagar attack in 1997, in which a mob burned down hundreds of houses, schools, church buildings and buses, there have been 80 such incidents, according to one Christian rights organization. In Gojra in 2009, eight Christians were burned alive, 100 houses looted and 50 homes set ablaze after a blasphemy accusation.
Human rights activists believe that authorities have accepted defeat in the face of growing Islamic extremism.
“They are simply afraid of the people who use religion for mob violence,” said Asma Jahangir, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association. “Until the leading political parties develop a general consensus on the issue of blasphemy laws, we will not get anywhere.”
c. 2013 Morning Star News. Used with permission.
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Publication date: March 25, 2013