On March 9 this year, a mob rampaged through a Christian neighborhood – Joseph Colony – in Badami Bagh police precincts, in Lahore, Pakistan. The colony was attacked and vandalized after a local Christian man was erroneously accused of blasphemy.
Over 100 houses were ransacked and torched, according to Zohra Yusuf of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, while the inhabitants fled for their lives, their children in tow. Police put the number of houses set aflame at 25. Windows were smashed and burned, valuables were looted – not a single house in the colony was spared. The mob destroyed everything. And yet the city’s police force failed to protect the residents of the colony, instead taking refuge in a warehouse nearby.
A few days after the tragic incident, the colony’s rehabilitation work was already underway. Burnt furniture and other household items were being piled into trucks to be ferried off out of sight. The houses were being re-built from scratch. The entire colony smelt of garbage, filth and burning steel and plastic. Tents had been set up throughout the neighborhood – a majority of which temporarily housed four to five family members, cramped in, sitting on broken furniture, humbly accepting whatever food and supplies were being distributed by individuals and aid organizations.
Amidst the tears and anger, there was visible trauma too. Polly, a middle-aged housewife told The Diplomat: “They burnt down our houses, they burnt our Bibles. You should have seen the way we had to run. Women and children, running, some children weren’t even wearing shoes…please don’t ask, please, we were in a very bad way.”
Lubna, another resident of the colony, was in tears as she described the fire. “I saw it with my own eyes. They [the mob] were laughing as they destroyed everything.”
As reported by The Express Tribune, the Additional Advocate General Punjab, Hanif Khatana, claimed that the police “avoided” clashing with the mob for fear of the incident being “blown out of proportion” lest someone were killed. However, Aftab Sultan, the Punjab Police Chief, has assured action against those officers for complete negligence and failure to protect Joseph Colony’s residents.
While the traumatized families of the colony struggle to get their lives back together following the harrowing incident, in a bizarre and unfortunate turn of events, many checks issued to the victims by the Punjab government bounced as soon as they were issued.
Speaking with Reverend Riaz Malik, Secretary of the Christian Education Department LDBE in Lahore, who was on the ground overseeing rehabilitation work in the colony shortly after the incident, he said that the victims “are going to be scared for the rest of their lives.”
“Although they are going to be sleeping here,” he continued, “They will be thinking each and every night, every moment, if any incident takes place anywhere in the city – or in the province – they will be more scared, because they have experienced each and every negligence which has been done by this Punjab government.”
Malik added, “This is Pakistan, but not the Pakistan which Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah dreamed of.”
Over the years, there have been numerous examples of individuals and communities being targeted over blasphemy allegations. In 2009, a Christian neighborhood in the city of Gojra, in central Punjab province, was targeted – nine people were murdered and numerous homes were destroyed.
In 2011, the former Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, was assassinated by his own security guard, Mumtaz Qadri, who was against Taseer’s public support of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman condemned for allegedly committing blasphemy, and for backing amendments to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws.
Soon after, in the same year, the Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was assassinated in quick succession in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The killers, Taliban gunmen, opened fire on Bhatti’s car and killed him on the spot. Just like Taseer, Bhatti was targeted by extremists because he was speaking out against the country’s ruthless blasphemy laws.
Last year, Rimsha Masih, a 14-year-old Christian girl was charged with blasphemy for allegedly burning pages from the Quran. However, the case was dismissed after investigations revealed that Masih was framed by a cleric, Khalid Jadoon Chishti.
Most recently, on April 3, a mob ransacked a Christian neighborhood in Gujranwala, confirming that such incidents will continue unfolding and escalating, unless and until those who uphold the law make a concerted effort to better protect minorities in Pakistan.
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: [email protected]