ROME – After angry mobs of Muslims attacked a series of Christian homes and churches in Pakistan Wednesday, the country’s Catholic bishops have called for justice and urged greater respect for minorities, saying a full investigation is necessary.
In a statement following Wednesday’s incident, Archbishop Benny Travas of Karachi voiced “shock and disbelief,” saying the Aug. 14 celebration of Pakistan’s Independence Day was a reminder that “Pakistan belongs to all Pakistanis.”
Just 48 hours later, “we have once again been confronted with open hatred and uncontrollable rage shown towards the Christian community,” he said.
The incident happened Wednesday morning, when hundreds of Muslims attacked a Christian community in Jaranwala, an industrial district of Faisalabad in Pakistan, after apparently being prompted to do so by a nearby mosque loudspeaker. The crowd looted homes and burned or damaged around 22 churches after a Quran allegedly was desecrated by a young Christian man.
Several churches were set on fire by one mob, while another targeted private homes, setting them alight and breaking windows.
Wednesday’s attack happened after pages torn from the Quran were supposedly discovered near the Christian community with allegedly blasphemous content written on them. Those pages were then taken to a local religious leader, who reportedly told Muslims to protest and demanded that those responsible be arrested.
Angry protesters then went on their violent rampage. Due to the scale of the violence, government officials deployed additional police forces and sent in the army to help restore order. Several locals reported calling the police for help as the attack was unfolding, with no response.
According to the bishops, so far 128 people have been arrested in connection with Wednesday’s attack, including two people considered to bear primary responsibility for the destruction.
The Punjab government has announced the establishment of a committee to investigate the incident, and local authorities have pledged to rebuild all churches and homes that were destroyed.
However, for Pakistan’s beleaguered Christian community, those promises must go beyond words and translate into concrete action.
In his statement, Travas said the allegations of the desecration of the Quran have “yet to be determined” and insisted that as the leader of the Catholic community in Karachi, “I just cannot comprehend how my people would show disrespect to any religion or to any religious books.”
“We, as a Christian community, have time and again displayed our fidelity to the nation of Pakistan, yet incidents like the burning of Christian homes in Gojra, Shantinagar, Joseph Colony, and now Jaranwala, show that we are in reality second-class citizens who can be terrorized and frightened at will,” he said.
Pointing to the statements of outrage by various politicians and national leaders, Travas said, “Once again, we have the same old condemnation and visits by the politicians and other government officials expressing their solidarity with the Christian community and promises that ‘justice will be done,’ but in reality, nothing materializes, and all is forgotten.”
He called on the government to show true solidarity with Pakistan’s Christian community “in this hour of grief” through clear and firm actions against all those responsible for “taking the law into their own hands.”
“We also call for a high-level investigation of the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran, as past incidents have shown that there have been other hidden motives behind such allegations,” he said.
Pakistan’s bishops’ conference has announced Sunday, Aug. 20, as a Day of Prayer following the attacks in Jaranwala, inviting all Christians and people of goodwill to join the initiative in praying “for peace and harmony in our country.”
On Friday, Travas led a peaceful protest of the Jaranwala attacks outside the Karachi Press Club, and a similar protest was held in Hyderabad, which was organized by the bishops’ Commission for Interfaith Dialogue, with demonstrators speaking and holding banners condemning the violence.
Archbishop Joseph Arshad of Islamabad, president of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops Conference, visited the site of the carnage in Jaranwala Thursday along with Bishop Yousaf Sohan of Multan, to pray and comfort those whose homes were destroyed.
Various Muslim leaders have visited the site and voiced their sympathy and solidarity with the Christian community.
Father Jamil Albert, head of the Franciscan Commission for Interfaith and Interreligious Dialogue in Pakistan, issued a statement in the wake of Wednesday’s attacks noting that Christians spent the country’s Independence Day praying for the “progress, sustainability and long life” of Pakistan, “where we all believe to be one nation.”
“Our prayers were not as second-class citizens, but our loyalty and contribution for Pakistan is sincere in the past, present and will always be because progress and protection of our beloved country means everything to us,” Albert said.
He noted that Christians in Pakistan, including his own commission, voiced public condemnation at the recent burning of a Quran in Sweden and called for peaceful coexistence among all faiths.
“We, as Pakistani Christians, cannot even imagine to disrespect any holy book, place or religious sentiments of other faiths,” Albert said.
Yet Pakistani Christians “are sadly confronting another incident which has hurt us very deeply, we are in a constant state of trauma,” he said, saying, “Our people in general in entire country and in particular Jaranwala are living in constant fear, uncertainty and in state of shock.”
Albert said many Christians in the area have fled their homes out of fear and are sleeping on the roads and in fields.
Not only were houses looted and destroyed and churches burned, but bibles were also desecrated and burned, crosses were tossed down from churches, and even Christian cemeteries “were not spared from this barbarian and brutal” violence, he said.
He called on the federal and provincial governments together with all law enforcement agencies and Pakistan’s Supreme Court “to make it a test case to prove to the Christian Community and all other religious minorities that they are equal citizens of Pakistan, and they are free to practice their religion.
Albert asked that authorities ensure Christians lives, homes, places of worship and other fundamental rights are protected by the state, voicing firm belief that Pakistan’s constitution “safeguards these rights of all citizens regardless of their religion, caste and race.”
“We call upon the government to start a high-level investigation of the alleged desecration of Holy Quran as well as of all the attacks on Christian Community to bring the instigators and executors to justice, to harmonize with the terrified Christian community,” he said.
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