Drunken Quarrel Between Friends Sparks Pakistan's Biggest Religious Riot Since 2009
Update (April 24): The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) reports that a clash in a neighborhood called Franciscabad prompted Christians to fight back when Muslims attacked local shops and churches.
"This is virtually unheard of in Pakistan," CSM states. "In similar cases in the past, Christian leaders and priests have generally appealed for calm and encouraged the community to forgive. At the most, they will organize peaceful protests to record their outrage."
Update (Mar. 15): The Legal Evangelistic Association Development (LEAD) of Pakistan has provided an initial report on last weekend's attacks on Christians' homes in Lahore, Pakistan, calling it an "episode of unspeakable violence."
Update (Mar. 13): Salvation Army colonel and Pakistan territory director Robert J. Ward confirms that pastor Asghar Nizam Ranjha has been relocated after "unfounded" charges of blasphemy against him. Ward's full statement can be found at the bottom of this post.
Update (Mar. 11): Morning Star News offers more details on the riot in Pakistan's second-largest city, including that local government officials reportedly ordered police to let the protestors "vent their grief and anger."
World Watch Monitor also offers more details, including that Pakistan's supreme court has requested an investigation into how police handled the riot.
Hours after a mob set fire to more than 150 homes belonging to Christian families in Lahore's Joseph Colony, protesters took to the streets throughout Pakistan, decrying the government's inaction.
The sectarian riot was one of Pakistan's largest since a surprisingly similar riot killed nine Christians in Gojra in 2009, prompting hopes that widespread outrage would lead to revisions of existing blasphemy laws. (The incident was one of CT's Top 10 News Stories of 2009.)
Police officials said the weekend incident started when a Muslim accused a Christian of blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad. According to Time magazine, the two men were friends having a drunken quarrel, and their comments were exacerbated by the local steel trading community.
Many Christians fled their homes, fearing that the conflict would escalate. The next day, a mob of more than 1,000 Muslims razed Christian homes throughout the city, according to the New York Times.
The attack also sparked a broader response among Christians in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, and Karachi, where they are speaking out–both peacefully and with violence of their own–against the government. Christian schools were closed today in protest.
"The Punjab government has again failed to act in accordance with law and safeguard the religious minorities," Sindh Assembly lawmaker Saleem Khursheed Khokhar said while speaking at a protest in Saddar.
Blasphemy laws are such a hot-button issue in Pakistan that even Christians are using blasphemy charges against their own. The Pakistani affiliate of the International Herald Tribute reports that dissident church members forced Salvation Army pastor Asghar Nizam Ranjha "to abandon his house [in Lahore] and flee in order to escape blasphemy charges after some of his parishioners accused him of defiling the Bible." Ranjha denied the accusations, and the Salvation Army transferred him to another city.
CT previously has reported on Pakistan and the debate over its blasphemy laws. Recently, CT reported the first cases of Christians exonerated from blasphemy charges. However, CT also noted that the conversation surrounding blasphemy law reform stalled last October following protests over the Innocence of Muslims film.
The full statement from Salvation Army Pakistan territory director Robert J. Ward is as follows:
As has been reported, the charges of blasphemy against the Salvation Army officer were unfounded. The Salvation Army's mission is to preach the life saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and we took these charges very seriously.
While they are not based on any factual findings, in an effort to maintain a respectful environment, the officer and his family are being moved to their family home. The Salvation Army is committed to providing a peaceful environment in which people can receive important services so that they can grow and change.
We regret the situation and believe with these adjustments, we will continue to serve those in need in the Pakistani community to the best of our ability.