Christians in Pakistan Host Easter in Hotel After Good Friday Church Fire

Security personnel stand guard as Christian devotees leave after attending a Christmas mas
AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images

A Presbyterian church in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, caught fire shortly after services on Good Friday, forcing the local Christian population to hold Easter services in a hotel and raising suspicions of arson.

Authorities at the UP Junior Church initially told reporters that they believed a local businessman, identified in some reports as Sheikh Ahmed, had potentially paid someone to set the church on fire as he had argued against police who blocked the road in front of the church to protect it from potential Islamist attacks during Holy Week. Hundreds of local Christians organized a protest on Saturday demanding police investigate Ahmed. Shortly after that, however, the pastor who runs the church denied that any evidence suggested arson, and police claimed a short circuit had sparked the fire, leaving unclear if local officials will continue to investigate the incident.

Pakistan is an explicitly Islamist state whose criminal law punishes “blasphemy” severely, including commanding the execution of those convicted of “insulting” Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Local Islamist mobs regularly use the laws to accuse non-Muslims, most prominently Christians, of “blasphemy,” often claiming that the individual in question desecrated a Quran, personally insulted Muhammad, or attempted to convert a Muslim to the faith. Muslims often also abuse the law to accuse Christians of “blasphemy” if involved in business disputes or having any personal disagreement with Christians.

While the Pakistani government has never executed anyone for blasphemy formally, mob lynchings are not uncommon in the country and police rarely bring killers to justice in cases where mobs kill alleged “blasphemers” in public.

Pakistan has repeatedly attempted to use its position at the United Nations to internationalize its blasphemy law, claiming global censorship of alleged blasphemy is necessary to fight “Islamophobia.”

Pakistan’s the Nation newspaper reported on Sunday that the UP Junior Church was almost entirely destroyed on Friday night; caretakers woke up on Sunday to find the building uninhabitable. The chief caretaker, Elder Javad, reportedly said that the fire occurred after he had turned off all lights and shut down the church, making it unclear what could have prompted the alleged short circuit police blamed for the fire.

“Javed claimed that Sheikh Ahmed, a native of the area, had an altercation with them and removed a fabric partition built for security reasons,” the Nation added. “He accused Ahmed or someone else of torching the church at his behest. He further stated that the event was intended to damage community’s feelings and disrupt city peace.”

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA) similarly reported accusations against Ahmed, citing Pastor-in-Charge Adeem Alfonce. On Monday, however, UCA said that Pastor Alfonce insisted that he was “satisfied” with the police concluding a short circuit had caused the fire and added ominously, “We cannot afford to agitate and are not suspecting anyone.”

Alfonce was quoted on Friday as stating that “police are trying to save a businessman who has financial, political and social influence.”

The widespread belief that Ahmed, who reportedly owns an under-construction shopping plaza next to the church, had reason to attack the church led to an estimated 500 people protesting outside of the church on Saturday, demanding police seek evidence linking him to the fire.

“Ahmed had objected to the tents and barricades that police erected in the area for security arrangements ahead of Good Friday,” UCA reported.

The Pakistani government owns the land on which the church was built, leaving unclear if the congregation will be allowed to reconstruct the house of worship.

Pakistan is one of the world’s most repressive states against Christians, both informally through government-tolerated Islamist mob violence and formally through the blasphemy laws. Many Christians in the country descend from lower social castes, forcing them to face discrimination on both accounts and often relegating them to undesirable, dangerous, and humiliating jobs, such as cleaning sewers without protective gear.

“Christian persecution in Pakistan includes large-scale kidnappings of young believers who are thrust into forced marriages, dreadful violence directed at churches on feast days, and societal discrimination which keeps our brothers & sisters poor and vulnerable,” the Christian aid organization Global Christian Relief explains in its profile of the country.

An anonymous minister in the country told Global Christian Relief:

Nowhere else in the world are persecuted Christians in more danger of violence from mobs, but the violence is always well-organized and strategic—we are watched all the time, and the moment we spread the Word with power we are in trouble, and we pay with our blood.

The most recent large-scale incident of mob violence in the country occurred in August, when an estimated 10,000 men stormed a Christian community in Jaranwala and burned down hundreds of homes, effectively leaving much of the Christian community homeless. Local clergy reported at least five churches burned down entirely and tens of thousands of people displaced.

The mob reportedly attacked after a rumor began circulating that a local Christian, identified as Saleem Masih, desecrated a Quran. Imams at local mosques began using their speaker systems to broadcast calls to violence against Masih and Christians generally, triggering the mob scene:

Police arrested 129 people in response to the incident.

In a similar series of events in December, a Christian in Punjab was accused of “blasphemy” for posting a Bible verse on Facebook, forcing his entire family into hiding and prompting police to arrest the man. The family accused a local neighbor of using Facebook to share the man’s photo on social media and call for his death.

FLASHBACK: Mob Smashes, Burns Christian Church, Homes in Pakistan

Tayyab Husnain/Jaranwala TV via Storyful
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