LAHORE, Pakistan – In an attempted land-grab in southern Punjab Province, police and cohorts of a retired military official beat two Christian women and shot at Christians who came to help them on Friday (Nov. 25), area Christians told Compass.
About eight police officials led by Sub-Inspector Muhammad Arif of Kot Sarwar Shaheed police station, along with armed associates of a retired senior military officer, Air Marshal Maqbool Shah, arrived at the fields of Nazeer Masih in the Kot Addu area and ordered the six or seven women working there to leave, said area Christian rights advocate Waseem Shakir. The women included Nazeer’s wife, Martha Bibi, and daughter-in-law, Nasreen Bibi.
The men told the workers that they had come to take possession of the 12.5 acres that Nazeer Masih owns in Mauza Sadiqabad area of Muzaffargarh district, which they claimed had now been allotted by the Revenue Department to the Pakistan Army for distribution among retired officials.
Martha Bibi told Compass the women were still in shock.
“We were cultivating chickpeas when the Muslims arrived at our fields,” she said. “They asked us to leave everything and never return because it was their land now. [We said] we have been cultivating the land since 1976, how could we just leave? This angered them, and they attacked us. They pulled away our headscarves from our heads and started hitting us indiscriminately with clubs and punches.”
About 800 Christians have lived in the Mauza Sadiqabad and Mauza Azizabad areas of Muzaffargarh district for the last 50 years, rights advocate Shakir told Compass by phone.
“The Christians are settled on 10,000 acres of land which they made cultivable over the years,” he said. “The land is actually owned by the government, but the Christians have been given ownership of the properties, and the record to this effect is present with the local revenue department.”
In the last few years Muslims have made several attempts to seize the land from the Christians, usually succeeding because Christians are a marginalized minority, while Muslims carry out illegal activities with impunity and official blessing, Shakir said. A similar attempt to take possession of Nazeer Masih’s land was made last year, resulting in a pending case in the Lahore High Court.
This time, Shakir said, the “land mafia” attempting to take the property was led by a senior military official.
“Martha, around 40, and Nasreen, about 28, refused to leave the land, which infuriated the Muslims, and they attacked the women, hitting them with batons and punches,” Shakir said. “The Muslims also inflicted a very serious wound near Nasreen’s left eye.”
He said that on seeing the commotion, some Christians working in nearby fields ran to rescue the two women, but the land-grabbers began shooting at them. No one was injured, and the assailants left with a warning that they would return, Shakir said.
He added that Nazeer’s family has been cultivating the land since 1976 and possessed legal documentation recorded with the revenue department.
“It is quite clear that Shah has used his influence and money to illegally get Nazeer’s property transferred in his name,” Shakir said. “How is it otherwise possible that any person can just come and lay claim on the land, which is already in the possession of someone for the last many years? Everyone is involved in this mafia, which is specifically targeting Christians.”
Area Christians had worked hard to make the land cultivable, as it used to be barren before the government settled them there, he said.
“Can the Punjab government justify this methodical injustice against the Christians of this area?” Shakir said. “The Muslims are grabbing any piece of land they can get their hands on. They haven’t even spared our graveyards.”
Muslim land-grabbers had demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics to build shops in the Kot Addu area in November 2010, their efforts fully supported by local government officials.
Shakir said that five days after the incident and repeated appeals to the Punjab government, officials had taken no action against police for the violence done to the Christian women, much less investigating the attempted land seizure.
“The government doesn’t care at all,” he said. “Deeply frustrated at the treatment being given to us, we blocked the road for some time in protest. It was then that the area’s deputy superintendent of police, Asadullah Khan, assured us that he would request the district police officer to probe the matter himself, because the people involved in this matter were beyond his authority. The assurance is turning out to be eyewash yet again, as there has been no progress in this regard.”
Khan declined to comment on the case. He referred Compass to the district police officer, who was unavailable for comment.
Gulzar Masih, headman of the area, told Compass that Muslims had also set fire to the house of a Christian man named Jalal Masih a year ago in an attempt to grab his property.
“We knocked on every possible door, but the local government remained indifferent to the situation,” he said. “Even though we somehow managed to get the chief minister to mark our application for registration of a case against the arsonists, the police refused to listen to us and threatened us with dire consequences if we did not stop pursuing the matter. The Muslims eventually grabbed Jalal Masih’s property.”
Gulzar Masih said that the entire revenue department was involved in tampering with property documents of Christians to render them landless.
“It is economic persecution of Christians of the area,” he said. “The government must intervene before it’s too late.”