An anti-terrorism court in Lahore has acquitted and ordered the release of 42 Christians previously imprisoned for rioting after two churches in Pakistan’s largest Christian neighborhood were bombed in 2015.
Persecution watchdog group International Christian Concern reports that the verdict was reached this week after settlements were agreed upon with the families of two Muslim men who were wrongfully killed by the rioters.
The riots stemmed from a terrorist bombing of two churches in the Christian neighborhood of Youhanabad, located in Lahore. Fifteen people were killed in the bombings, including 11 Christians and four Muslims. In response, local Christians staged a riot in which two Muslim men suspected of participating in the bombings were lynched.
In the following days, police made several raids in the district, arresting about 500 people. The ATC sentenced 42 Christians for terrorism, while the church attackers reportedly went unpunished.
Two of the Christian prisoners died while waiting for a trial. The others filed an application under Section 345 of the Code of Criminal Procedure which argued that they should be released because they had reached a settlement with the families of the two deceased Muslims.
The ATC accepted this application and acquitted all suspects, including the two who died in custody, after evidence of the settlement with the two families was presented to the court.
The families of the 40 remaining prisoners have welcomed the settlement and the ATC’s verdict, notes ICC, and have reported “being pleased to see the return of their loved ones after almost five years of imprisonment.”
ICC’s Regional Manager, William Stark, said, “International Christian Concern is happy to see the peaceful settlement of the Youhanabad riots and arrests after almost five years. The bombings of the two churches and the deadly riots that followed truly marked a dark day in Pakistan’s history. We hope that important lessons can be learned from this tragedy. Lessons that will bring greater protection for Christian places of worship and open dialogue between Pakistan’s religious communities to settle religious disputes.”
The guilty verdict sparked controversy in 2015, with the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops expressing disappointment that “the police and the authorities focused only on the deplorable act of lynching, to be condemned strongly, while the authors of the criminal attack on churches, on innocent worshipers, are still unpunished.”
Additionally, the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement, a nongovernmental organization, said most of the Christians were “unjustly accused" and the pressures from Muslim extremists influenced the verdict.
It was previously reported that the 42 Christians were told that if they renounced their faith and embraced Islam, their acquittal would be guaranteed. According to reports, one of the imprisoned men, Ifran Masih, responded by saying that he would rather be hanged than embrace Islam.
Persecution watchdog Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan as the 5th worst on its 2020 World Watch List of 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.