A small Christian community in Pakistan is living in fear after they were reportedly attacked last week by a mob of enraged radicals because a nearby mosque accused its members of committing blasphemy following an altercation with a Muslim man.
The London-based charity British Pakistani Christian Association reports that two Christian families in the Arif Wala Tehsil district of Punjab province were forced to flee from their homes after the attack last Wednesday by a mob of about 40 Muslim men and children with weapons.
According to BPCA, which is providing financial assistance to the community, the mob was incited by a local mosque that claimed over its loudspeakers that the Christians had insulted Islam.
The mosque allegedly called for Muslim believers to bond together to force the minority Christian community of about seven families out of the village.
Five Christian men from the community are being held in protective custody at a local police station after they were accused by the Muslim man who started the initial altercation of attempted murder.
"Local police from Arifwala police have confirmed that thus far no blasphemy charge has been made which is comforting for the Christian families,” BPCA field officer Mehwish Bhatti said. "However we call on people to pray for this situation to improve as Christian families are not sending their children to school for fear that they will be kidnapped or attacked or worse still killed.”
Bhatti added that a number of Muslim shopkeepers in the community are not selling to Christian families.
“Some families have expressed their desperate plea for help as they have had to go without food on some days,” she explained. "Shukantilla [a 60-year-old mother] was upset because all the earning hands in her family are in police custody.”
The tensions in the community were heightened on May 15 when a Muslim man named Syed Bashir engaged in a phone conversation outside of the home of a Christian family of eight, witnesses told BPCA.
But as Bashir began shouting and using foul language, family members became alarmed. It was then that 25-year-old son Naveed Masih asked the man to kindly move his conversation further away from the household.
However, Bashir responded by calling Masih a “dirty cleaner,” an expletive used to describe Christians who are often given dirty jobs in Muslim-majority Pakistan. Bashir also reportedly threatened Masih with death and stated that he would carry out his phone conversations in front of the Masih home every day from there on out.
Those who spoke with BPCA said that Bashir punched Masih in the eye, which led Masih to defend himself. Then the rest of the family ran outside to pull Masih back into the house. Bashir allegedly threatened the family with retaliation and left.
Because of the threat, Naveed Masih filed charges of trespassing against Bashir at a police station in Arifwala.
Around 7 p.m. that night, the Masih family overheard an announcement coming from the public address system of the mosque calling for Muslims to push the blasphemers out of the community.
"This was a horrifying moment for my whole family and other Christians,” Shukantila Farzand told BPCA. "In our panic, we started to get ourselves ready to flee our homes and get far away from the village, however, we were all too slow.”
She said that Muslims gathered outside her family’s home, which also serves as the church where the seven Christian families and other Christians from surrounding villages worship.
"The violent mob surrounded our home and all of them had weapons including guns — which were being shot in the air, sticks, axes, poles and farming tools,” Shukantila continued, adding that even small children were carrying weapons. "The mob began shouting outside our home, asking for our family to exit our home and receive divine retribution for our sin.”
Members from another Christian family in the neighborhood came out of their home in an attempt to appeal to the mob in peace, BPCA notes. However, that family was beaten. The mob reportedly told the family to leave the area or be burned alive in their homes.
Members of the Masih family then came out of their home to help the other family.
BPCA reports that between the two Christian families, seven men were beaten while some Christian women were also beaten when they came out to help. According to BPCA, the women returned home when they were told by members of the mob that they would be kidnapped or raped.
The Christian families were aided by Muslim women who intervened in the violence and helped the families to escape.
The two families sought shelter in the home of a moderate Muslim lawyer. When the mob threatened the lawyer to release the families, the lawyer called the police and filed a report against the mob. That caused the mob to disperse.
Bhatti confirmed with the local police station that no charges of blasphemy have been filed against the Christian community, a crime that is punishable by death or life in prison.
However, Naveed Masih, his father, his brother, and two other Christian men were accused by Bashir of attempted murder.
While the five Christian men are being held in protective custody, BPCA maintains that their detention is only a ploy to get the enraged radicals to think that they had been arrested.
The charges reported to police are in the process of being investigated.
Although there are evidence and witnesses who can attest to the mob attack occurring against the Christian community, no one who participated in the mob has been arrested, according to BPCA.
BPCA field officer Zeeshan Masih visited with the families after they returned back to their homes. He too reported being threatened by local men for supporting the Christian families.
"Clear crimes have been committed by those who formed the violent mob and the evidence of a prominent local Muslim lawyer will no doubt help bring some justice into the situation over time,” BPCA Chairman Wilson Chowdhry said in a statement. "However, we are fearful of the existing social-tension and have alerted local police of our concerns for other Christians outside of police custody.”
Pakistan ranks as the fifth worst country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution, according to Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
As a Muslim-majority country, Christians make up around 2 percent of the nation’s population and regularly face discrimination.
Religious freedom advocates have long spoken out against Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, contending that they are often used by Muslims to persecute or settle scores with religious minorities.
Thousands of Pakistani Christians over the years have fled to become refugees in nations like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in hopes of being given asylum in a safer country.
Last year, the U.S. State Department designated Pakistan, a strategic ally in the region, as a “country of particular concern” for having “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”