Several Christian churches were vandalized and scores of houses set on fire on Wednesday, 16 August, by a mob of Muslims who attacked a Christian community in eastern Pakistan, after accusing two of its members of desecrating the Qur’an.
The attack took place in the town of Jaranwala in the industrial district of Faisalabad. More than 80 Christian homes and at least 20 churches in Pakistan were vandalised when a Muslim mob rampaged through the streets over alleged blasphemy.
Rights groups maintain that Christians continue to face discrimination in the country, evidenced by several accusations waged against them without any evidence.
A recent report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (uscirf), which drew attention to deteriorating religious freedom in numerous countries globally, expressed concern for the continued enforcement of blasphemy provisions punishing individuals for allegedly offending, insulting, or denigrating religious doctrines, and efforts to enact stricter blasphemy legislation in several countries.
In the wake of the attacks, on Sunday, 20 August, a Special Day of Prayer in Pakistan was observed in all the nation’s Catholic communities.
The following excerpts are from a Vatican News interview with the President of the Pakistan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Joseph Arshad, who has seen the people’s suffering firsthand.
Archbishop, why is this day of prayer for Pakistan so important?
We called for this day of prayer because we need to pray for Pakistan. We need to pray for what is happening in our society. We need to pray for the victims who have gone, and are in trouble, and in pain, and suffering, at the moment.
How is the situation now? How are people recovering? What are you seeing?
The other day I visited where everything occurred. I went there. People are suffering. You can feel the pain of people who left. [...]
Naturally, for the people who have lost their houses, it will take time to come out of this trauma. At the moment, some people have gone to their relatives to stay together with them. Some people are in the open field, so the church has moved, and we are trying our best to help and assist these people. [...]
What can be done to prevent the misuse of the law?
Good education is needed. Among the people, more awareness is needed. Respect for each other’s religion is to be promoted. These measures can help the society to become better. And naturally, the government should effectuate strict punishment to bring to justice those people who have done this.
Otherwise, as in each of the incidents in Pakistan in the past, the mobs of people have attacked, but no proper justice was done. That’s why it happened again. If there was some example set in the past, this could have been avoided. Maybe with police or administration, some time could be taken to come and control the situation. [...]
Have there been any acts of solidarity from Muslims in other parts of the world?
Muslims are coming to us and paying their condolences. Even the Prime Minister has announced that they will take strict measures and they will bring these people to justice, and even the Chief Minister of Punjab also knows this. But at the time, everybody is intent on controlling the situation and to help these people.
How has Shahbaz Bhatti borne witness to Christianity, having been a Christian in Pakistan amid difficulties, and how do Christians today bear witness in your country?
We, the Christians, have been always a peaceful nation, a peaceful people, in Pakistan. Shahbaz Bhatti was a minister here, and a man who always spoke for the rights of people. And that’s why people still remember him and they consider him a hero because he also insisted in the government, that the 5% quota for the minority was introduced, in all the departments of the government. We can benefit from this quota in Pakistan. That was all due to the struggles of Shahbaz Bhatti.
In the day-to-day reality, though, for the Christians in Pakistan, is it fair to observe that there are many episodes of discrimination?
There are many. I mean, the culture, the mindset, is such that even all the people are being discriminated. We as a religious minority, we are the biggest sector of the society. So we too, are discriminated [against]. But the rich will discriminate; the poor, the powerful, they will discriminate against the weakest ones. And so, these realities exist in the society. Therefore, we become an easy target in this kind of discrimination and mindset.
* For the full interview please visit: https://www.vaticannews.va/en/church/news/2023-08/president-pakistan-bishops-discusses-day-prayer-interview-arshad.html
By Deborah Castellano Lubov