Tension and fear have gripped the Christian community in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city, after a Muslim mob attacked the community on Sunday when a young Christian man was accused of blasphemy. The city's archbishop, Sebastian Shaw, has credited local authorities with containing the mob and diverting the worst of the possible violence. On May 24, Humayun Faisal Masih was burning newspapers in Sanda, a Christian district in Lahore's northwest. Muslim onlookers accused him of blasphemy, alleging that some of the pages contained verses of the Quran. Masih, who is mentally ill, was detained by police, and in the evening a mob gathered, wishing to lynch him. He was kept safe by police, and the angry mob went about attacking Christian homes and places of worship, including St. Joseph Catholic Church. Doors, windows, and electric meters were broken, and goods were looted, according to Legal Evangelical Association Development, a Pakistani minority rights group. The crowd blocked traffic, setting tires on fire and throwing stones at Christian homes. A local Christian told CNA May 27 that “some angry Muslims, some armed with guns, ransacked churches and attacked Christian residences and houses pelting stones … which is a horrific and gruesome scene of violence against the innocent women, children, and elderly.” He lamented the role that “ignorance, illiteracy, religious fanaticism, and greed” play in such eruptions of mob violence in Pakistan. Local Christians were warned of impending violence by police, and many fled the area before the attack began. Police were forced to use teargas on the mob, as several officers were attacked and injured. The local source told CNA that “the situation today has come under control and over 150 Muslim people have been charged for violence, and Humayun Masih is also taken into police custody. The town is coming back to normalcy, but the fear and mental trauma will linger for years.” Archbishop Shaw was appreciative of the authorities' efforts to contain the violence. “ I immediately requested help from some Muslim leaders and local politicians,” he told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need. “Thanks to their intervention, the police succeeded in dispersing the crowd by midnight. It is the first time the government has succeeded in acting in time to save both the people and their homes.” He credited the effectiveness of the police response to his close contacts with officials since two Lahore churches were attacked in March, saying, “Since then I have maintained close relations with politicians and representatives of the local Muslim community. It was their support that has enabled us to avert the worst." Archbishop Shaw lamented the impact that accusation of blasphemy have on the community at large: “When a Muslim is accused of blasphemy, it is just that individual who pays the consequences. But if a Christian is accused, the entire Christian community is held responsible.” Pakistan's state religion is Islam, and around 97 percent of the population is Muslim. The nation has adopted blasphemy laws which impose strict punishment — typically the death penalty — on those who desecrate the Quran or who defame or insult Muhammad. Mental illnesses such as Masih's also do not constitute a mitigating factor under the blasphemy laws. Dr. Shahid Mobeen, a professor of Islamic history and thought at the Pontifical Lateran University, told Aid to the Church in Need that the blasphemy law also “takes no account of the intention on the part of the accused. In order to be convicted it is sufficient to drop a copy of the Quran or accidentally tread on a page of a newspaper on which are printed verses of the Quran … and yet only five percent of Pakistanis even understand Arabic — consequently 95 percent of the population could easily commit blasphemy without even realizing it.” Moreover, Pakistan's literacy rate is estimated to be around 60 percent — meaning 40 percent of Pakistanis could burn a newspaper which they cannot know contains Quranic verses. The blasphemy laws are said to be often used to settle scores or to persecute minorities: while non-Muslims constitute only three percent of the Pakistani population, 14 percent of blasphemy cases have been levied against them. In November 2014, a Christian couple, Shahzad and Shama Masih, were burned alive by a mob after they were accused of desecrating the Quran. Shama was burning some of her recently deceased father-in-law's things, and her employer noticed, and alleged that some of the burnt pages were from the Quran. The month prior, the Lahore High Court rejected the appeal of Asia Bibi, a Christian woman, who has been sentenced to death under the blasphemy laws. According to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, some 25 mullahs were present at the court “to apply pressure and push for the sentence … to be upheld.” In May 2014, a lawyer defending a professor accused of blasphemy was shot dead in Multan. In 2012, a teenaged Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, who has Down syndrome, was arrested under the blasphemy laws, and released on bail. She and her family had to be relocated because of threats against them. And in 2011, two politicians — Salmaan Taseer, a Muslim, and Shahbaz Bhatti, a Catholic — were assassinated for opposing the blasphemy laws. The Lahore Archdiocesan National Peace and Justice Commission and other human rights advocacy groups have condemned the recent violence in Lahore, and hope peace will prevail in the region.
Catholic News Agency was founded in 2004, in response to Pope St. John Paul II’s call for a “New Evangelization." It is an apostolate of EWTN News.