Pakistani Christians return home after threats of violence over Facebook post forced them to flee

Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020.
Christian devotees attend a Palm Sunday service at the Sacred Heart Cathedral church during the government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Lahore on April 5, 2020. | ARIF ALI/AFP via Getty Images

Hundreds of Christian families have returned to their homes in the Charar neighborhood of Lahore, Pakistan, after threats of violence over a Facebook post forced them to flee. 

On Dec. 22, Pakistani Pastor Raja Waris published a Facebook post that some Muslims alleged was blasphemous. It’s unclear what the post said, International Christian Concern’s South Asia Regional Manager Will Stark told The Christian Post. Once people describe a post as blasphemous in Pakistan, people stop sharing it and take it down. If they leave it up, they will likely be targeted by violent Islamists too.

“[The post] could say something as benign as ‘Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior; He is the final prophet.’ Even if he said something like ‘Jesus is God,’ it could be considered blasphemous,” said Stark.

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Christians in Pakistan usually behave very respectfully toward Islam, he said, because they fear the violence that often follows a blasphemy accusation. Blasphemy accusations are Pakistan’s scarlet letter, Stark added.

“The whiff of him being a blasphemer is enough to be a black mark on his life for the rest of his life,” said Stark.

In the days immediately after the blasphemy accusations, Islamic radicals threatened to burn the homes of Christians and demanded the beheading of Waris, said Stark. Hundreds of Christians fled, and police took Waris into custody on Dec. 28. It remains unclear whether they mean to arrest him or protect him.

About 98% of the Christians who fled their Charar homes over Christmas have returned, but Waris will probably have to flee to another place if he leaves police custody.

“We’ve been looking to see if there was a First Information Report as to why he’s being held. We have not found one,” Stark said.

Pakistani police might cave to mob pressure and charge Waris with blasphemy, Stark explained. If they do, local Muslims will interpret the arrest as official approval for attacks on local Christians. If Muslims can’t kill the person accused of blasphemy, they often attack Christians in their communities.

“It would probably turn up the heat again on the situation,” he said. “If the government or the police force says ‘Yes, this is blasphemy,” it’s going to give credibility to the fringe voices. Blasphemy accusations in Pakistan have a tendency to ignite very emotional outrage.”

In Pakistan, Muslims consider blasphemy so horrible that in many cases, it justifies murder, said Stark. It’s common in Pakistan for a murderer to be let free after he accuses his victim of blasphemy. A vindictive or jealous neighbor can destroy a rival by making a blasphemy accusation.

Popular opinion upholds blasphemy laws, Stark told CP. Research has shown that these attacks often cause an increase in terrorism, intolerance, and violence.

Since Pakistan widened its blasphemy laws in 1987, the number of accusations has increased dramatically. From 1987 to 2017, 1,534 people have been accused of blasphemy in the country. A disproportionate number of the accusations target Christians.

“When we start talking about reform and repeal, at this point in time in Pakistan, there is no political will for repeal. I don’t think there should be a blasphemy law, they lead to extremism and violence,” Stark said. “We’re trying to advocate now for reform.”

Christian holidays such as Easter and Christmas often bring attacks on Christians, Stark said, noting that Pakistan’s government has encouraged churches to strengthen security during the high holy days.

To visit church on Christmas or Easter, a Pakistani Christian must go through almost a prison-like block of checkpoints with metal detectors, passing by armed guards and security cameras, he said. Without the security, churches would risk letting in suicide bombers.

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