A teenage love affair in Pakistan had devastating consequences when fanatics set fire to a village church and forced all the Christians to flee.
Hundreds of Christians narrowly escaped with their lives on Friday, September 11th, when extremists went on a rampage in Jethki village in the Sialkot district of Punjab Province. Armed with bricks, stones and sticks, they sprinkled kerosene on the church before setting it ablaze and desecrating it. The mob also carried out an arson attack on two Christian homes next to the church and threatened to kill the inhabitants of the village.
Church leaders claim the violence was sparked by a Muslim woman who was furious that her 18-year-old daughter had broken a social and religious taboo by becoming romantically linked to a Christian man. Determined to break off the three-year-old relationship between the two school classmates, clergy allege that she ripped a page containing verses of the Qu’ran out of a book and was seen throwing it in front of the man’s house.
She is then said to have run to the local Muslim authorities and accused the man of desecrating the Qu’ran, thereby breaking Pakistan’s infamous Blasphemy Laws. Desecration of the Muslim holy book carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment under Article 295B of the Penal Code. The Muslim authorities apparently orchestrated the violence as an act of revenge.
The violence is the fourth of its kind within three months and has prompted yet more calls from Christian leaders in Pakistan – and others alike – for the Blasphemy Laws to be repealed.
On Saturday, September 12th, the day after the Sialkot incident, Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari condemned the attacks and pledged government funds to repair the church. Meanwhile, the 19-year-old man at the center of the crisis is being detained in prison while police investigate the incident. He is not being named for security reasons.
In an interview with Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), Father Andrew Nisari, Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Lahore, which covers Sialkot, said, “People are very frightened and upset by what has happened.”
“We are actually glad that the 19-year-old boy is in jail at the moment – at least there he will be safe. It means he won’t be killed by the fanatic Muslims,” the priest said.
“Although the church is still standing, it is completely burnt inside – the altar, the statues, the pews, the priest’s chair, Bibles and other religious books. The whole church is now totally unusable.”
He repeated calls for the Blasphemy Laws to be overturned. “The laws hand people – Muslims in particular – an invisible sword enabling them to take revenge on anybody they like. This case shows that religion is being misused in our country and that it is very necessary that the Blasphemy Laws be repealed.
Aid to the Church in Need is calling for the repeal of the Blasphemy Laws.
Fr. Nisari stressed how the incident nearly ended in bloodshed. He said, “All the priests told the Christians to run away from the village otherwise the mob will kill everybody.”
The Christians who fled the village are now taking refuge with friends and relations in nearby towns. Fr. Nisari added, “I urge all the Christians in the world to pray for us who are persecuted in Pakistan. We need your prayers right now.”
The incident on September 11th is not being linked to the eighth anniversary of the attacks of the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York. Pakistan minorities’ minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, the only Christian in Pakistan’s federal cabinet, will visit the region and submit a report to the government.
Church leaders are interpreting the incident as yet further evidence of widespread persecution against Christians across the country. The continued unrest climaxed last month with attacks in Punjab Province’s Gojra city, where nine Christians were killed.