Mosques probed over protest call in Pakistan blasphemy riots

A cleric is one of 12 persons who are being investigated for using mosque loudspeakers, while more than 125 people have been arrested linked to the vandalism that followed.

August 19, 2023 08:35 pm | Updated 08:35 pm IST - Lahore

 People and members of the media gather along a street in a Christian neighbourhood, a day after the church buildings and houses were vandalised by protesters in Jaranwala, Pakistan on August 17, 2023.

People and members of the media gather along a street in a Christian neighbourhood, a day after the church buildings and houses were vandalised by protesters in Jaranwala, Pakistan on August 17, 2023. | Photo Credit: REUTERS

A Muslim cleric is among a dozen people being investigated for using mosque loudspeakers to order protests against alleged blasphemy by Christians which erupted into mob violence in Pakistan earlier this week, a senior police official said.

More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches were vandalised when hundreds rampaged through a Christian neighbourhood in Jaranwala in Punjab province on Wednesday.

Reports that a Koran had been desecrated were broadcast from mosques, with one cleric telling his followers it was "Better to die if you don't care about Islam".

"That cleric should have understood that when you gather people in such a charged environment... in a country in which people were already very sensitive about (blasphemy) it is like adding fuel to fire," Punjab police chief Usman Anwar told AFP during an interview in Lahore on Friday.

"He's not saying that go and burn their houses. But when the mob gathers, it's really impossible to control that."

He said the cleric was one of 12 persons who were being investigated for using mosque loudspeakers, while more than 125 people have been arrested linked to the vandalism that followed, thanks to the use of facial recognition technology, mobile phone geo-fencing and data gathered from social media.

At its peak, more than 5,000 people had poured into the neighbourhood from other districts, with smaller mobs spreading to narrow alleys where they ransacked homes.

Christians who fled in their hundreds have criticised police for failing to protect their property, with some sheltered by their Muslim neighbours.

"If police had started baton charging, or attacking (the mob) or tear gassing that would have resulted in multiple injuries or deaths. And that is what we were avoiding at that time. That would have aggravated the situation that would have spread in all the country," Anwar said.

Negotiations with religious leaders led to calls for calm, he added.

Two Christian brothers have been arrested for blasphemy, after torn pages of the Koran with offensive words scrawled across them were stuck to the walls of a mosque in Jaranwala in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

Anwar said he personally interrogated the pair to avoid the possibility of accusations of torture.

On Friday, 3,200 churches were guarded by police across Punjab province to provide reassurance to the Christian community, Anwar said, adding that he would travel to Jaranwala Sunday to show solidarity.

Christians, who make up around two percent of the population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in Pakistani society and are frequently targeted with spurious blasphemy allegations.

The majority of those accused of blasphemy in Pakistan are Muslims, but members of religious minorities face an especially acute threat, according to rights groups.

Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.

Politicians have been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over accusations of blasphemy.

In one of Pakistan's most high-profile cases, Christian woman Asia Bibi was at the centre of a decade-long blasphemy row, which eventually saw her death sentence overturned and ended with her fleeing the country.

Her case sparked violent demonstrations and high-profile assassinations while spotlighting religious extremism across wide sections of Pakistani society.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the number and size of the attacks "appear to have increased in recent years".

Anwar said that while the anger towards blasphemy may be justified, the violent reactions were not, describing the scenes in Jaranwala as "tragic".

He said it was the role of clerics and the government to ensure that religion was not misused.

"The most important thing is that we, the Muslims, in this country, are going to become more tolerant. Once we are given the true message of Islam, that is the role of the government," he said.

Top News Today

Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in

Comments

Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.