Seven Christians were injured Sunday in the Punjab province of Pakistan after a group of enraged Muslim men attacked and beat worshipers with bricks and even "opened fire" on them as they were leaving their worship service.
Pastor Haleem Feroze Masih told Morning Star News that the attack on the congregants of King Jesus Church in the New Christian Colony of Burewala occurred around 1 p.m. when about 15 armed men stormed the church compound and began relentlessly attacking his congregation.
The pastor said the attack came after a skirmish outside the church over its Easter banner.
"Some of our church elders were trying to install a flex sign board in connection with the upcoming Easter festival on the wall in front of the church but they were stopped by Sharif's sons," Masih explained. "Sharif is a local [Muslim businessman] who has previously grabbed a piece of the Christian cemetery in our colony and built a cattle shed on the graves. He is also running a gambling den and is known to patronize criminals."
The pastor explained that Sharif installed the signboard in front of the church last Christmas as a way of congratulating the Christians. However, the Christians did not like the fact that the sign included the phone numbers and pictures of Sharif, his family members and others.
Masih stated that more problems arose when Muslim youth began hanging out near the church where they harassed Christian girls.
Although the church leaders spoke with Sharif about their concerns, he reportedly did not take any steps to alleviate the situation.
The situation reached a boiling point Sunday when church elders attempted to replace the sign with their own and Sharif's sons stopped them from doing so.
Masih said that the group of Muslims snatched the sign and tore it into pieces.
"One of our church elders told the Muslims that they had desecrated biblical verses inscribed on the flex sign, to which they responded, 'We are bigger than your Jesus,'" Masih told Morning Star News.
Church member Iftikhar Bhatti told World Watch Monitor that the skirmish took place right as the church's worship service was letting out.
"The church service had ended by then and as church members started leaving they also got caught up in the clash," Bhatti explained.
Masih said the men beat the congregants with batons and bricks and even began firing bullets at them.
"Some of them whipped out their weapons and opened fire on the church members, who ran to save themselves," Masih said. "I immediately telephoned the police and headed out to try and defuse the situation. However, I was also beaten up, my service robe torn and my mobile phone smashed to the ground. I think we were fortunate that none of us suffered a fatal bullet injury during the clash."
The pastor also said that the men attacked police once they arrived at the scene by throwing stones at them.
Police arrested Sharif, his sons and another Muslim man at the scene. However, other perpetrators escaped with their weapons.
Burewala City Police have filed a case against 10 Muslim men, including Sharif and his three sons. The men have been charged with rioting with a deadly weapon, unlawful assembly and trying to induce religious outrage.
The attack on the church community comes as the Muslim-majority Pakistan ranks as the fifth-worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List.
According to Masih, the New Christian Colony of Burewala is home to about 200 Christian families and persecution of this magnitude had not occurred in the community before Sunday.
"The police have assured us of providing security to the area's Christians and of proceeding against the accused Muslims in accordance with the law," Masih told Morning Star News.
This is not the first time this month a Christian church in Punjab was attacked.
As previously reported, a Muslim mob attacked the Pakistani Gospel Assembly during worship service on March 4. Several congregants were injured and hospitalized after they tried to stop the Muslim men from demolishing the church's boundary wall.