Hundreds of people in Gujranwala, mostly residents of Azizabad Colony, on Saturday attacked a Christian seminary, a church as well as houses of Christians — including a pastor — after finding out that two Christians who had been accused of blasphemy have been released from protective custody by the police.
Father Mushtaq Gill Masih and his son Farrukh Gill Masih were taken into protective custody by the Gujranwala police on April 15, in an attempt to prevent another Gojra-like massacre, after the two were accused of desecrating a copy of the Holy Quran. Upon conducting an investigation, the police found the charges against the two men to be fabricated and have not registered a case against them.
The two men were accused of writing a blasphemous note, but a handwriting expert hired by the police determined that it was not written by them. Police are still trying to find the real author of the note.
The two men were released on Friday afternoon after the police felt that matters had calmed down. However, at 7:30 am on Saturday morning, as news of their release spread, Muslim residents began rioting and hurling rocks at the houses of Christians, including that of Pastor Eric Isaac, as well as a neighbourhood church and a Christian seminary.
A climate of fear seems to have overtaken the Christian community in Gujranwala. At least 3,000 Christian families are reported to have fled Azizabad Colony and its neighbourhoods. Most have fled to Sialkot and Lahore, fearing another incident like Gojra, when eight Christians were killed after another false blasphemy accusation.
The fear, however, is not limited to just the Christian residents. Even Muslims in Azizabad Colony have started putting up their names and religious affiliation on their doors to avoid having their houses stoned. Residents of Azizabad say that most of the protesters were not from the neighbourhood.
The protesters were armed with sticks and batons. A rally led by Qari Zahid Saleem, president of the Interfaith Harmony Committee of Gujranwala, later set fire to tires in front of the office of the regional police officer. Local leaders of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Pakistan (JUP) and other religious groups also attended the rally.
Some of the protesters started pelting rocks at the police contingents who had arrived to control the situation. Police arrested around 100 of the protesters, though no cases have been registered against any of them. Law enforcement officials estimate that the total crowd was no more than 500 people.
Police were able to calm down the protesters by around 1 pm by assuring them that the real blasphemers would be caught within three days. Officials, however, have not stated as to whether or not they have any leads on the real suspects.
Matters seemed to have been calming down in the afternoon but erupted again late in the evening when some residents of Azizabad Colony claimed to have found burnt pages of the Holy Quran at the neighbourhood graveyard.
The head of the Gujranwala police, Ghulam Muhammad Doger, warned the protesters that he would not allow them to target and harass the Christian community of the city and would take strict action against the provocateurs of the riots. “You will only be able to attack Christians over our dead bodies,” he said to the rioters. The incident is the first where, despite having two people clearly accused of blasphemy, the police did not bow to intense pressure from religious and political parties.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2011.