(Photo: The Voice Society)
Incited by calls from mosque loudspeakers after a dispute between Muslim and Christian youths, a Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood in Gujranwala today, injuring at least five Christians and damaging a church and dozens of shops and vehicles.
Only a few hours after Pakistan's Supreme Court rebuked Punjab Police for only observing arsonists and other assailants in Lahore's Joseph Colony rioting last month, police allowed Muslims to attack Christians of Francis Colony in Gujranwala, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Lahore, sources said. Two of the injured Christians were seriously wounded.
A resident of Francis Colony, where 2,000 Christian families have settled in the overwhelmingly Muslim-majority country, said police bias was evident in today's attack.
"The police was doing what it does best – nothing!" said Asif Barkat, who received minor injuries as he and other Christians tried to defend themselves. "Their bias towards Christians is quite evident, because when the Muslims were raiding our church and property, they just watched, but when we confronted them, they started hitting us with batons and used live ammunition to deter us."
Area Christians said three Christian youths – identified only as Mehran, Timothius and Waqas – were heading to their homes on a motorized rickshaw along with four Muslim passengers on Tuesday night (April 2) when one of the Christian boys asked the driver to turn on radio.
"The boys told us that a Muslim passenger named Muhammad Mushtaq stopped them from playing music, saying it was forbidden in Islam, and that he should not show disrespect to the Muslim faith," Pervaiz Masih, told Morning Star News by phone. "The boys entered into an argument with the Muslims, which later turned into a minor scuffle."
Passersby intervened, and the Christian boys went to their homes, he said, but the Muslim youths called their friends and soon a mob gathered in Francis Colony. They began shouting derogatory slogans against Christianity, trying to provoke residents, who remained in their homes unaware of the prior altercation.
"When the Muslim youths left the area, a group of Christian elders went to the police post located in our colony and sought security from them," Masih said. "The police told us that they would not let any person harm us and the matter would be resolved amicably. On this assurance we returned to our homes."
This morning, a group of Muslim leaders including Muhammad Nazar, Muhammad Mushtaq and Muhammad Chand called on the Christians to form a committee to resolve the issue peacefully, he said.
"We formed an eight-member committee to negotiate with the Muslims, but when the delegation reached the designated meeting point, they found no one there," he said. "They were then asked to come for the dialogue at the police post."
Masih said that as the delegation was preparing to go to the police post, a Muslim mob of 500 to 700 people mainly from nearby Noorkey village attacked their colony with firearms and clubs.
"They took us by surprise, because we trusted the police's assurance that the Muslims would not resort to further violence," Masih said. "The mobs ransacked a church, dozens of shops and damaged several vehicles."
Police and rescue units said at least five Christians were injured during the attack, two of them seriously.
Though police reportedly engaged the armed assailants in gunfire, apparently resulting in more injuries, area Christians such as Babar Masih told Morning Star News they saw only police inaction.
"They were just looking on as the Muslim boys broke our shops and vehicles," he said. "No one tried to stop the mobs from damaging our property, so some of us took out our weapons and started firing into the air to scare them away. Our boys also came on the roads and confronted the Muslims with batons and sticks. We were not going to let them repeat the Joseph Colony tragedy in our neighborhood."
Aneeqa Maria Akhtar, a Christian lawyer who is head of The Voice Society advocacy group, told Morning Star News that police could have prevented the violence. She said that before the clashes, Muslims made provocative speeches used mosque loudspeakers to call Muslims to "teach the Christians a lesson," yet police did nothing.
"They let it happen," she said. "Timely action by the police would have contained the situation."
Akhtar added that she had filed an application in the police chief's office against responsible officials.
Police officials said members of a banned Sunni militant group, Sipah-e-Sahaba, were involved in the attack, but that they had increased security in the area in an effort to prevent religious conflict.
Gujranwala Division Police Chief Amin Vaince said that he had ordered the police post to be shut down and disciplinary action taken against staff members for showing extreme negligence in their duties.
"The police's job is to serve the people," he said. "It's quite clear that the police did not do their job, resulting in damage to property and injuries to some people. However, we will get to the bottom of things, and those responsible for disturbing interfaith harmony would be dealt with an iron hand."
Pakistan is nearly 96 percent Muslim, according to Operation World, and Christians make up 2.45 percent of the population.
Earlier in the day, before the Supreme Court, a Punjab government lawyer conceded that Lahore police in Joseph Colony on March 9 had purposefully avoided the Muslim mobs incited by a blasphemy accusation.
"The religiously charged mob was avoided by police, for if any of them got killed, the issue might have been blown out of proportion and spread all across the country," argued Additional Advocate General Punjab Hanif Khatana, defending the inaction of police.
Justice Azmat Saeed of the three-member bench challenged the counsel's statement.
"Is the Punjab government not ready to take risk for protection of Christians?" he said. "It's disturbing and upsetting … you cannot punish a community and desecrate their churches."
Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, heading the bench, also inquired pointedly.
"Do you mean whenever there is charged mob, the police should shy away from confronting them?" he said. "Should we leave the SC [Supreme Court] building if any mob attacks and take shelter in Judges Colony?"
The chief justice reminded the court that all are equal before the Pakistani Constitution and the law, and that police are trained for controlling highly charged mobs.
Aftab Sultan, the newly appointed inspector general Punjab Police, said actions had begun against the area's senior police officials for failing to confront the mob that burned down more than 180 Christian-owned houses and shops and at least two church buildings.
He also acknowledged that it was the duty of the state to provide protection and security to all citizens of the country without any distinction.
In view of the assurances given by the inspector general, the high court dropped the case but directed relevant trial courts to continue proceedings without prejudice from the Supreme Court's decision.