Will lessons be learnt after attack on Pak Christians?

March 25, 2013 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

A Muslim mob torched 178 homes in Joseph ColonyPakistan, March 21, 2013: The authorities in Pakistan have faced severe criticism over the destruction of an entire Christian neighbourhood by a Muslim mob earlier this month. Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry said that the attack on Joseph Colony could have been avoided had lessons been learnt from a similar episode in Gojra in 2009 and a system put in place to protect Christian communities. Will the latest outbreak of violence prove to be a catalyst for change or just another incident in an endless series of attacks?

There have certainly been some signs of hope in the way the authorities and others have responded to the incident. The Punjab government was quick to react, with the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif apologising to the Christian community and promising that the perpetrators would be dealt with severely.

The District Coordination Office set up emergency shelters and provided food for the victims. And repair work on the torched houses and other buildings got underway almost immediately; 60 homes and two churches have already been restored. The authorities pledged on Sunday (17 March) to complete the reconstruction of the other homes and shops within a week. Police have been deployed to protect both the Christians living in tents and the labourers doing the repair work on their homes.

The promised compensation has been paid, with each family receiving 500,000 Rupees (£3,350; US$5,100).

Scores of arrests have been made, with a First Information Report, which launches criminal proceedings in Pakistan, lodged against 83 named suspects.

Reconstruction work on the Christians’ homes is underwayThis response by the authorities has been uncharacteristically positive for an attack on a Christian community. But with a general election pending in the next two months, it has been suggested that the motives of the governing party in Punjab, the PML-N (PakistanMuslim League), may not be altogether altruistic. Before the Joseph Colony attack, the PML-N was riding high in the opinion polls, but severe criticism of the authorities over the incident has threatened their position. Their response may therefore have more to do with pre-election posturing than concern for justice for the Christian minority. It remains to be seen whether their care will outlast the election campaign.

In addition to the support from the provincial authorities, there has been a great deal of sympathy and solidarity expressed for the Christian victims in the Pakistani media. And Muslim groups, including Islamist ones such as Jamaat-e-Islami, have condemned the violence.

CHRISTIAN PROTESTERS ATTACKED

But there has also been hostility. Christians who have staged peaceful protests in support of their brothers and sisters in Joseph Colony have faced threats and violence.

Police fired tear gas at and beat Christian protestors with sticks in Youhanabad and Kot Lakhpat. Elsewhere, Pastor Naeem Bhadhar, who had arranged a protest rally, was beaten severely by radical Muslims as he was travelling back to his village in Sialkot on 14 March. He was warned that any Christian who organised further protests would be killed.

Following a rally by Christians in Jhelum city on 12 March, Muslims accused Pastor George Naz of blasphemy, saying that he had criticised the country’s blasphemy laws. Announcements from the mosques warned that Muslims would burn Christians’ homes if the police did not take action against George within 72 hours. CLAAS, a Christian legal organisation in Pakistan supported by Barnabas Fund, intervened and succeeded in restoring calm to the area, perhaps averting another catastrophe.

HISTORY REPEATING

Hostility towards Christians is never far from the surface in Pakistan, and an unsubstantiated accusation of blasphemy can be all it takes for violence to flare.

Since the Gojra attack, there been several major incidents of religious incitement, such as the blasphemy allegation against Rimsha Masih that led to an entire Christian community having to flee their homes.

A judicial tribunal investigated the Gojra violence and submitted a report to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif in October 2009. He had assured the Christian community that the assailants would be brought to justice and the recommendations of the judicial tribunal implemented in full. But over three years later, the tribunal’s findings have still not been made public and nobody has been prosecuted.

Those involved in the Gojra inquiry believe that the Joseph Colony violence could have been averted if the Punjab government had implemented the tribunal’s recommendations. The report said:

The Gojra tragedy must be taken seriously and the needful should be done on war-footing without further loss of time to avoid a replay of the gruesome episode.

The police were criticised for their “inadequate precautionary and preventative measures” and “complete failure … while discharging their duties”. The report also proposed amendments to the country’s blasphemy laws, which underpin hostility towards Christians and other non-Muslims in Pakistan.

Similar statements have been made in response to the Joseph Colony attack. One commentator wrote that the police had “stood aside helplessly as silent spectators” while the neighbourhood was razed to the ground.

The similarities between these cases demonstrate a cycle of failure by the authorities that must be broken once and for all. They have missed crucial opportunities to put in place procedures that could stem the tide of violence against Christians, and they must not let this one pass.

A contact in Pakistan said:

I don’t think that such incidents will stop happening, as the government has hinted at neither making changes to the blasphemy laws nor taking steps to change the majority community’s attitude towards Christians and other non-Muslims…The government response does not indicate any intention to remove the root causes behind such violent attacks against Christians in Pakistan.

It has been encouraging to hear how the authorities have swooped in to help the Christians of Joseph Colony after the attack against them. They must now work on preventative measures so that such devastating incidents are consigned to the past.

– barnabas edit

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