Were Pakistan's Deadly Gojra Riots Enough to Provoke Change?
As the prime minister of Pakistan visited the scene of the Muslim nation's worst Christian persecution in recent memory Thursday, observers wondered if the violence will finally prompt the repeal of the country's notorious blasphemy laws.
Rumors of a Qur'an desecration at a Christian wedding in the eastern village of Kurian led to violent demonstrations that culminated August 1 in the destruction of more than 100 Christian houses in nearby Gojra. Eight Christians were killed in the mob violence, including six family members burned alive in their home. Pakistani authorities said the Qur'an desecration allegations were unfounded and that banned Sunni extremist groups in the area had incited the attacks.
The violence in Gojra, a town of 150,000 that has long been a headquarters of the Anglican Church of Pakistan, was one of the worst attacks ever against the religious minority. Christians and human rights groups protested the killings in major cities as Christian schools nationwide closed for three days in symbolic protest.
Old violence, new response
Violence against Christians in the Punjab is sadly nothing new: observers mark over 30 group incidents against Christians since September 11, 2001. And the province was the location of two of Pakistan's most dramatic incidents of persecution: the October 2001 church attack in Bahawalpur that left 16 Christians dead and the February 1997 destruction of the Christian village of Shantinagar.
Punjab is the center of Pakistan's small Christian community—an estimated 3 million in the Muslim nation of 175 million—and home to an estimated 40 militant Islamist groups.
Still, response to this attack was unique. For the first time, TV and online media spread the news widely enough to spark national outrage. Pakistan's Parliament issued a unanimous condemnation of the violence. And Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani pledged to review laws "detrimental to religious harmony," the Associated Press reported this week.
"This is the first time that persecution against the Christians of Pakistan has been highlighted so intensively and widely," said Ashar Dean, assistant director of development and relief programs for the Peshawar diocese of the Church of Pakistan. "People were shocked to see the brutality committed by a handful of people … [and] surprised to see the inability of the local government to provide protection."
Christian protests have been unusually strong as well. Gojra's Christians refused to bury the dead quickly. Instead they used coffins containing the burned bodies to block the town's railway track until police filed a report against the local residents and officials involved in the attack.
"For the first time, the Christian side has taken a bold stance, saying, 'Enough is enough,'" said Asif Aqeel, executive director of the Community Development Initiative, a Lahore-based Christian development group. "In previous incidents, Christian politicians and clergy played a role as pacifiers. … They did not seek justice."
Incidents such as Gojra will happen again unless changes are made to existing laws and their enforcement, said Asma Jahangir, chairperson of the Lahore-based Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
"The [blasphemy] law has to be repealed. It is clearly a tool in the hands of those who want to exploit religion to their advantage," said Jahangir. "The government needs to send a message that those who create violence in the name of religion are not above the law."
Observers believe a sizable number of Pakistan's Muslims agree that existing blasphemy laws should be repealed or at least amended. However, past government attempts to do so have been blocked by religious conservatives.