A crowd of Muslim women and a few men attacked a Catholic church in Pakistan's Punjab province recently, injuring two Christian women - one 70 years old - and vandalizing the building.
At least three men and 20 women attacked the Kawanlit village chapel on February 3, leaving 70-year-old Veero Mehnga Masih with broken legs and also injuring Saleema Mazir Masih, 50. The mob broke windows, smashed the altar and burned Bibles.
Despite prompt condemnation of the violence from church leaders across Punjab, police refused to file an official complaint. Kawanlit's Christians told Compass today that they are powerless to pursue a court case and plan to seek extra-legal reconciliation.
On February 6, wealthy village landowner Mohammad Iqbal opened a case against eight of Kawanlit's Christian's for starting a fight that led to the church destruction. But according to Franciscan parish priest Bernard Bhatti, the eight accused "were not even there" at the time of the church attack. He said the incident stemmed from a property dispute with Iqbal, whose relatives were involved in the attack.
Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Lawrence John Saldanha and Hindu National Assembly Member M.P. Bhandara condemned the attacks in statements on February 3 and 4. Bhandara called on the government to investigate the incident, saying it was a matter of "urgent public importance" that was causing "great concern in the Christian community."
But speaking from a meeting today with Punjab Provincial Assembly Member Joseph Hakim Din, representatives of Kawanlit's Christian community of 14 families said that they plan to seek extra-legal reconciliation with Iqbal and the village's 200 Muslim families. The day after the church attack, Din agreed to form a committee of Christians and Muslims to help the two sides find a peaceful solution.
"I want to emphasize that we are slowly coming to a consensus [with the Muslims]," Fr. Bhatti told Compass from Lahore. He said that there had been problems but that the Christians had no choice but to "struggle for reconciliation."
Kawanlit's Christians decided to pursue reconciliation after police refused to register a First Information Report about the church attacks. The report is standard procedure in Pakistan for any criminal complaint lodged with police.
Approached by Fr. Bhatti and members of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) the day after the attacks, district police officer Tariq Khokhar claimed that the incident had only been "a scuffle between women." A February 4 statement from Lahore-based NCJP reported that the police were "ignoring that the outcome of the incident warranted a criminal proceeding."
According to Fr. Bhatti, officer Khokar argued that opening a case would be a waste of time and money because the Muslims would file a counter-case. "He said, 'It will take a very long time in the court, maybe two, three, or even five years - who will spend the money?'" Fr. Bhatti told Compass from Lahore.
One of two priests in a parish of 227 villages, the Franciscan told Compass that neither he nor Kawanlit's Christian community, mostly poor laborers, have the time or the money to pursue a legal case. The attack was used to "threaten our people, so they got really scared," Fr. Bhatti said. "What I want is that everyone continues their work so that they can go to their jobs and nothing will happen."
The roots of the attack go back to November 7, 2005, when landowner Iqbal bought a piece of property adjacent to the 20-year-old church. According to Fr. Bhatti, Iqbal began a process of "encroachment," using more and more of the church's land to park his vehicles and tie up his animals.
After failed attempts to buy the property from Iqbal, the Christians opened a court case against the landowner on January 12. They petitioned police and government officials at both the local and provincial level, leading to Iqbal's immediate arrest.
Released on bail on January 26, Iqbal threatened the Christian community with retribution for opening a case against him, Fr. Bhatti said. The February 3 attack, he said, was triggered when Veero Masih and Saleema Masih challenged Iqbal's relatives for tying up livestock on the church property.
The injured women were immediately admitted to a government hospital in the city of Daska, five kilometers (three miles) away. Veero Masih is still in the hospital, while Saleema Masih was released on Monday after receiving treatment for minor wounds.
The mob threatened the Christians with further attacks if they attempted to seek legal recourse.
Christians have faulted the government for creating an atmosphere in Pakistan that encourages attacks on minority communities. "Violence against the weaker communities is reappearing because the government has failed to take measures on the incidents that happened before," Archbishop Saldanha commented on February 3.
The National Council of Churches (NCC) in Pakistan also released a statement calling on the Punjab government to come out of its "slumber" and address minority issues. "The places of worship of minority religions and sects have been attacked with impunity," NCC General Secretary Victor Azariah said in a February 4 statement.
Both Saldanha and Azariah pointed to the government's failure last year to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against churches in the town of Sangla Hill. In November a mob of 2,000 Muslims attacked and destroyed three Sangla Hill churches, a convent and its chapel, a mission run school and several Christian homes.
Copyright (c) 2006 Compass Direct