Lahore (Fides News Agency) – On Sunday, August 20, a special Day of Prayer will be held in Pakistan, in all the nation's Catholic communities: with this announcement, the Pakistan Catholic Bishops' Conference entrusts to the Lord's hands the episodes of open violence against sacred buildings and the families of the baptized, perpetrated on August 16 in the town of Jaranwala, near Faisalabad, in Pakistani Punjab.
"We shall pray for peace, for interreligious harmony, to say 'No' to all forms of violence and hatred, which are never justified, a poison for society. We call on God, the giver of all good, and we ask all people of good will, Christians and Muslims, to stand by us, united for a peaceful Pakistan, free from hatred, where the rights and freedoms of all citizens are respected, regardless of their creed", Fides News Agency heard from Sebasian Shaw, Archbishop of Laore, the capital of the Punjab province, the site of said incidents.
The spark for violence was the - completely unfounded - alleged accusation of blasphemy against Saleem Masih, an illiterate Christian who works in street sanitation, accused of having offended the Koran. According to some local Muslims, a number of pages in the sacred book were found to have blasphemous statements and Masih was accused. After an appeal by a local Islamic religious leader, a crowd unleashed mass violence which, in the churches and homes of Christians in the Jaranwala area, found its primary target.
The outcome of this attack saw four churches (one of which Catholic), and three chapels razed to the ground; a desecrated cemetery; multiple houses of Christian citizens destroyed or vandalized; no fatalities, but at least three seriously injured. Fr. Khalis Mukhtar, the parish priest of the Catholic church of St. Paul, which was reduced to rubble, stated that at 5.30 in the morning a mob broke into the church, beat up a catechist and "began to torch and destroy, even targeting the neighborhood that Christian families - threatened and forced to flee - inhabit". On the other hand, it must be said that many fleeing families were welcomed and helped by other Muslim households in the area, themselves shocked by the sudden and unjustified wave of violence.
The following day, many police officers and rangers were deployed to the area to restore security. Political institutions have guaranteed an enquiry and the ascertainment of responsibilities to identify those who instigated and carried out the attacks on Christians. The president of the Pakistan Bishops' Conference, the Archbishop of Islamabad-Rawalpindi, Mons. Joseph Arsad, hopes that "the primacy of law and justice will be re-established and a better society built", while Anglican Bishop Azad Marshall called on the government to "guarantee justice and security for all". Akmal Bhatti, a Catholic leader who heads the "Minorities Alliance Pakistan" forum, noted that "once again, accusations of blasphemy are the pretext to justify mass aggression on innocent people and on Christian places". Like numerous religious and civil representatives, Christian and Muslim, the National Commission "Justice and Peace" (NCJP), within the Bishops' Conference of Pakistan, condemned the incident expressing "concern about this grave attack on Christians" and evoking memories of "past false accusations of blasphemy" that led to similar events. On behalf of the entire Catholic Church in Pakistan, the Commission stands in solidarity with the Christian families affected, encourages them to "remain united in prayer" and is optimistic about the government's response for the rebuilding of the destroyed churches and homes. "The Jaranwala incident – they concluded - reminds us of the urgent need to promote harmony, unity and understanding among religious communities", expressing hope that all members of society should "strive for justice, peace and coexistence". (PA) (Fides News Agency 18/8/2023)