The violence in Lahore, the capital of Punjab state, sparked protests by Christians there and in other cities, in some cases leading to clashes with police. Senior church leader Bishop Azad Marshall appealed to the Christian community to remain calm but also called for justice.
Police officials said some of those involved in the attacks in a Christian enclave known as Joseph Colony had been identified from media footage and had been arrested. But few accused of similar offenses in the part have been convicted or punished.
Also under arrest is the Christian whose alleged blasphemy is being blamed by the mob for their behavior.
Named by police as Sawan Masih, the 28 year-old has been charged under section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which states, “Whoever by words, either spoken or written or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death.”
The latest violence comes just days after Pakistani Christians voiced concern about the way non-Muslim minorities fare under the country’s electoral system as the May elections approach.
At an election rally in Peshawar on Sunday, the leader of one of the major parties campaigning in the election, Imran Khan of the Movement for Justice party, deplored the violence and pointed a finger at one of his rivals, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), whose support base is in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province.
Khan blasted Sharif’s party for making electoral alliances with “terrorists” – an apparent reference to Sunni Tehreek, which signed an electoral pact with the PML-N in early February.
Sunni Tehreek is a radical group within the Barelvi movement of Sunni Islam. Sometimes viewed in the West as moderates because they oppose al-Qaeda, Barelvis hold extreme views regarding shari’a and blasphemy, and Sunni Tehreek has often been at the center of anti-Christian agitation.
Khan at his rally also accused Punjab’s PML-N government of encouraging an environment where anti-Christian violence could thrive by not ensuring justice after a previous such attack in the province, in a town called Gojra in 2009. Eight Christians died during that incident which, like the latest one, was triggered by blasphemy allegations.
If the provincial government had caught those responsible for Gojra, Khan said, then the weekend attack in Joseph Colony may have been avoided altogether.
“The Punjab government should be ashamed,” he said.
Sharif, a former prime minister who was overthrown by Gen. Pervez Musharraf’s 1999 coup, is expected to do well in the forthcoming elections, with some polls even predicting a victory for his party at a national level.
His main rival is the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf.
Neither party has pledged to repeal the notorious blasphemy laws.
The Rev. Reuben Qamar of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan said the person who made the original accusation against Sawan had “incited a large crowd from nearby mosque and went to Sawan’s house to kill him.”
“Sawan had fled from his house but crowd threatened the Christian people in the area to hand over Mr. Sawan to decide his fate. Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area … leaving behind their houses and possessions unprotected.”
Qamar said the incident called into question the competency of law enforcement agencies who “failed to control the mob.”
“This is also a question mark on the role of Muslim religious leaders and scholars who instigate people to attack on minorities.”
He called for support from international organizations for the amendment of the blasphemy laws.
A senior PPP politician and governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, was shot dead in January 2011 by a member of his bodyguard, who said he had killed Taseer because the governor was critical of the blasphemy laws.
The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, was hailed as a hero – by Sunni Tehreek leader Shahid Ghori, among others.
“If the state does not take action against people who use derogatory remarks against sacred personalities then obviously people would take the law into their hands for their love for them,” Ghori said at the time. “Qadri had set this example for rest of the people.”
Two months after Taseer’s assassination minorities affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian, was gunned down in Islamabad by unknown assailants, who left pamphlets accusing him of blasphemy because of his opposition to the laws.
Although most cases under the blasphemy laws are brought by Muslims against other Muslims, the Christian and Ahmadi communities, given their size, are disproportionately targeted. Ahmadis are an Islamic sect considered heretical by mainstream Muslims.