LAHORE, Pakistan – Christians in south Punjab Province are accusing senior district officials of supporting local Muslims who allegedly demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics – and are now threatening Christians seeking legal redress.
In the Kot Addu area of Muzaffargarh district, Waseem Shakir told Compass by telephone that an influential Muslim group last Nov. 6 took illegal possession of a 1,210-square yard piece of land designated as a Christian cemetery and set up shops on it. Official records state that the portion of land was allotted as a Christian cemetery, he said.
"Local Muslims demolished 150 Christians' graves and desecrated the cross and biblical inscriptions on the graves in a bid to construct shops on the property," said Shakir, a resident of Chak (Village) 518, Peer Jaggi Morr, Kot Addu. "Only five marlas [151.25 square yards] are all that is left for the Christians to bury their dead now."
Shakir said that all Muzaffargarh area authorities, including the local politicians, were supporting the alleged land-grabbers even as Christians feared a mob attack.
"The situation has come to point where even the local police have warned their higher-ups that the tension could provoke a Gojra-type incident," he said, adding that Muslim instigators were now openly trying to intimidate him and Boota Masih, who registered a case with police, into dropping the matter.
In Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, Muslim hordes acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of blasphemy of the Quran – and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.
Shakir said Christians had approached police and the district administration to register a case against the Muslims for desecrating their sacred relics and hurting religious sentiments, but authorities have shown little attention to their grievance. Masih registered the complaint on behalf of area Christians, but the station house officer of the Daira Deen Panah Police, Waseem Leghari, altered it to state that Muslims had only occupied a piece of the cemetery land, Shakir said.
"Leghari registered a case against the Muslims under Section 297 of the Pakistan Penal Code [trespass of a place for the dead], which is a bailable offense, despite the fact that a case under the blasphemy law should have been registered against the Muslims for desecrating the Christian holy relics," Shakir said.
Police took no measures to arrest the 11 named suspects, he added.
"No one seems bothered over the desecration of our cross and biblical inscriptions," Shakir said.
Section 297 of the penal code states, "Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both."
Shakir said that, besides the 150 demolished graves, the illegal occupants had thrown garbage on another 50 graves. The police's indifferent attitude towards the Christian community had been hurtful, he said, and Christians had repeatedly taken up the issue with District Police Officer (DPO) Chaudhry Manzoor and District Coordination Officer Tahir Khurshid.
They did not take the issue seriously, Shakir said.
DPO Manzoor rejected the Christians' accusations.
"It's not as serious a case as they are portraying," he told Compass. "The people who have built shops on the land are not illegal occupants but the real owners."
He said Christians were furious because the shopkeepers put some of their belongings on the graves.
"No one has desecrated any Christian holy symbol, book or grave," he said. "Any fears that the issue could lead to another Gojra are baseless."
Manzoor said the matter would be resolved amicably.
Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Minorities Wing of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), told Compass that open desecration of the Christian symbols and places and the police's alleged support of the culprits showed the prejudice of the Punjab government towards minority groups.
"An application regarding this incident is lying in the Punjab chief minister's secretariat, but it seems the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz's [PML-N] government in Punjab wants another Gojra-like incident to take place in Kot Addu," he said, adding that it was curious that all major violence against Christians usually takes place when the PML-N is in power in the province.
Qayyum said that he had taken up the matter with the PPP leadership.
"It's a case of blasphemy, and the culprits should have been rounded up under Section 295-A," he said. "I have contacted Farahnaz Ispahani, the political adviser to President Asif Zardari, and she has assured me of the federal government's support in this matter."
He added that stern action against local police and administrative authorities was necessary to set an example for others.