An enraged mob vandalised multiple churches in the Jaranwala tehsil of Faisalabad on Wednesday over blasphemy allegations, officials said.
A Christian leader, Akmal Bhatti, said the crowd had torched at least five churches and looted valuables from houses that had been abandoned by their owners after clerics made announcements in mosques inciting the mob.
Dozens of people also blocked a nearby highway.
Jaranwala pastor Imran Bhatti told Dawn.com that the ransacked churches included the Salvation Army Church, United Presbyterian Church, Allied Foundation Church and Shehroonwala Church situated in the Isa Nagri area.
He added that the mob also demolished the house of a Christian cleaner, accused of blasphemy.
Meanwhile, the police registered a first information report against the accused under sections 295B (defiling, etc., of the Holy Quran) and 295C (use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet) of the Pakistan Penal Code.
Speaking to Dawn.com, Punjab police chief Usman Anwar said the police were negotiating with the protesters and the area had been cordoned off.
The official stated that efforts were under way to contain the situation by engaging with peace committees and police across the province had been activated.
“The assistant commissioner of the area, a member of the Christian community, has also been evacuated after people turned against him,” Anwar added.
On the other hand, Christian leaders alleged that the police remained silent spectators.
Separately, Punjab Home Department spokesperson Amjad Kalyar confirmed that a request seeking the deployment of Rangers in the area had been sent to the department, but a decision was yet to be taken on it.
Later in the evening, newly-appointed interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar said stern action would be taken against those who violate the law and target minorities.
“All law enforcement has been asked to apprehend culprits and bring them to justice,” he said on X (formerly Twitter), assuring that the government stood with “our citizenry on equal basis”.
Taking to X (formerly Twitter) earlier, President Bishop of the Church of Pakistan Azad Marshall said that Bibles had been desecrated and Christians were tortured and harassed “having been falsely accused of violating the Holy Quran”.
“We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland that has just celebrated independence and freedom,” he demanded.
Bishop Marshall added that all priests, bishops and lay people were “deeply pained and distressed” at the incident.
Former interior minister Rana Sanaullah strongly condemned the “dastardly attack” and stressed that the culprits should be brought to justice at the earliest.
“Extremism and hatred nullify the fundamental principles of Islam,” he tweeted.
PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari said he was horrified to hear about today’s attack, asserting that violating the sanctity of worship places was “absolutely unacceptable”.
“The administration must ensure the safety of the Christian community and their churches,” he highlighted.
PPP leader and ex-climate change minister Sherry Rehman said the incident was “tragic, terrible, reprehensible on so many levels”.
“Pakistan’s non-Muslim citizens are entitled to the same justice, protections and rights we all are.
“Our religion, our constitution finds no space for such violent exclusions and desecrations of what any community holds sacred,” she said.
Former senator Afrasiab Khattak condemned the incident and demanded that the culprits should be brought to book.
“Pakistani state has failed to provide security to the worship places of people who follow religions other than Islam. Impunity to the crimes committed in the name of religion has emboldened extremists and terrorists,” he added.
Balochistan Senator Sarfaraz Bughti also called on the Punjab government to enforce its full might to protect churches and Christian hope.
“We, as a Pakistani, can’t allow the madness happening in Jaranwala,” he said on X. “We have a responsibility toward the minorities in our country, and we couldn’t let the crisis worsen any further!” Bughti added.
Former human rights minister and ex-PTI leader Shireen Mazari termed the incident “absolutely shameful and condemnable”.
Barrister Taimur Malik said, “We are failing to protect our minorities - while focusing on protecting extremists for street power and political nuisance value!”
“This dangerous situation must be stopped without delay. This isn’t Modi’s India,” he added.
Journalist Hamid Mir called the attack a violation of Islamic teachings.
Separately, Pakistan Ulema Council (PUC) Chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi said religious leaders visited Jaranwala today to address the situation.
In a joint statement issued by the PUC and International Interfaith Harmony Council (IIHC), he said religious leaders actively engaged with the community to stabilise the situation and foster an environment of understanding.
“The leadership of PUC and IIHC underscored the shared responsibility of safeguarding worship places and residences of all communities.
“They assured that the protection of the religious places was not only the duty of the Muslim populace but also a responsibility upheld by the state,” the statement added.
Nearly 100 killed over blasphemy allegations since 1947
Last week, a teacher affiliated with a language centre was shot dead by unknown armed men on an allegation of blasphemy in Turbat town of Kech district.
In a similar incident in February this year, a man was lynched over blasphemy allegations in Nankana Sahib after he was accused of “desecrating the Holy Quran”.
In January 2022, the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS) in a report stated that as many as 89 citizens were killed in 1,415 accusations and cases of blasphemy in the country since independence. The report said that from 1947 to 2021, 18 women and 71 men were extra-judicially killed over blasphemy accusations. The allegations were made against 107 women and 1,308 men.
Out of the total, 1,287 citizens were accused of committing blasphemy from 2011- 21. “The actual number is believed to be higher because not all blasphemy cases get reported in the press,” the report had said, adding more than 70 per cent of the accused were reported from Punjab.
The report had said misuse of blasphemy laws is often described by courts as an unlawful act. It had said the Islamabad High Court had previously suggested to the legislature to amend the existing laws to give equal punishment to those who level false blasphemy accusations.
The report had said the origin of the blasphemy laws dated back to the British era when these were promulgated in 1860.
Initially, four blasphemy laws — section 295, 296, 297 and 298 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) — were introduced and in 1927 section 295 was supplemented by 295-A after the case of Ilmuddin, a Muslim carpenter, who killed Mahashe Rajpal for publishing a blasphemous book.
Most recently, the Senate passed a bill to increase the punishment for using derogatory remarks against revered personalities — including the Holy Prophet’s (Peace Be Upon Him) family, wives and companions, and the four caliphs — from three years of imprisonment to at least 10 years in jail.
However, the law came under criticism by the PPP. The party’s human rights cell noted that blasphemy in any form of any religion could not be condoned and must be punished. It was also noted that the intentions behind the bill were questionable which, it feared, would only promote sectarianism and intolerance in the country.