LAHORE, Pakistan — Like so many tragic incidents, it started with two alcohol-soaked young men getting into an argument. It ended with 250 homeless families.
On March 6, in a northern suburb of Lahore, Pakistan, 28-year-old Christian sanitation worker Sawan Masih visited Muslim childhood friend Shahid Imran’s barbershop.
Although Pakistan is officially a dry country, one can easily procure spirits there, and it was liquor that fueled the squabble. It ended with Imran accusing Masih of blasphemy against Islam.
This is a particularly loaded charge in a nation where no proof is needed to bring charges, where a guilty verdict brings a death sentence, and where mere accusations typically lead to egregious violence against the republic’s Christians, who account for just 1.6% of Pakistan’s population.
And so it was that three days later, on March 9, the local mosque’s loudspeakers announced Masih had blasphemed Muhammad. This provoked an evidently coordinated mob of 3,000 Muslims to march on the Christian ghetto of Joseph Colony, even though Masih was already in jail.
As the throng grew, police urged residents to leave the slum at once. Those who could went to relatives’ homes. None who escaped realized they would never again see their homes or their few personal possessions — some of which provided their livelihood — for these were either first looted or burned in the ensuing inferno.
One Pakistani news source described Joseph Colony as a rundown shanty area in a densely packed part of Lahore. Thus it burned quickly, although sources said a chemical accelerant not commercially available was used.
When the fire eventually died, approximately 178 homes, two churches (including a Catholic one) and 500 Bibles had burned. According to the Archdiocese of Lahore, the incident marked the 15th time archdiocesan Christians had experienced this sort of mob violence.
Sister Shamim Feroz of the congregation of the Religious of Jesus and Mary, who works with local children, says the victims "are living in tents, most alongside the main road. I have visited them, and their situation is real, real miserable."
When she first heard the news, she said, "I started sweating with anger. I felt very hopeless, very angry."
On March 11, Sister Shamim visited the slum and saw everything had been "looted and burned. Everything was ashes. Still, it’s not so much the material things. The ashes made me think of their human dignity that has been ruined. It’s not their houses that have been set on fire — it’s their hearts, their feelings, their emotions and their heritage."
No one died in the fire, and only 10 people received treatment for any injury, with just one person requiring hospitalization.
Nonetheless, since the incident, Caritas Pakistan has treated 300-plus people for mostly stress-related ailments. Furthermore, because of unsanitary conditions, Caritas medical personnel fear outbreaks of malaria and diarrhea, especially with the recent heavy rains and high temperatures ranging between 85-95 degrees.
To help the refugees, Caritas has distributed stoves, coolers and food.
Two days after the incident, huge protests that left traffic snarled and that featured both Christian and Muslim leaders took place throughout the nation.
On the same day as the protests, police announced they had arrested 150 suspects and were looking for more. Still unclear is why authorities did not intervene in the first place.
In addition to the constabulary’s news, Punjab Province’s Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, former leader of the country’s Pakistan Muslim League, called the riot at Joseph Colony "the worst example of barbarism." He promised swift punishment for those responsible and said that he would make an example of the guilty.
In the nation’s capital of Islamabad, a Senate Committee echoed Sharif’s call to make their punishment exemplary.
Shortly thereafter, Sharif said that 60 houses and two churches had been repaired and promised construction crews would finish the remaining homes within a week. Additionally, in a nation where the average per capita income is $1,254, provincial, federal and foreign governments distributed the equivalent of $10,435 to each affected family.
Refugees were told not to complain when they re-entered their homes, which have had their facades repainted and everything destroyed within.
"Ceilings are torn away; walls are still cracked," one resident said. "We do not feel secure inside."
Even so, "this time the government acted fast," says Caritas official Father Bonnie Mendes. "For one thing, it was in the provincial capital, and people from all walks of life could reach it easily [to see what happened]. The government wanted to cover up for their great lapse of not being able to stop the arson and looting."
Indeed, many evidently believe the authorities’ response was so laudable that when an interfaith group held a "Day of Solidarity" March 15 — at which a thousand people from more than 30 faiths participated — its members praised Punjab’s government.
According to AsiaNews.it, one Muslim participant said all religious leaders "must promote harmony" and expressed "deep sorrow" for the attack on the Christians. His sentiments were confirmed by a Sunni Muslim leader, who invited everyone to "combat extremism" and those who oppose the idea of peaceful coexistence.
A Muslim cleric described the anti-Christian attack as being "against Islam. ... [O]nly peace and harmony can create a prosperous nation."
Nice words, however, won’t help those picking through the rubble.
"Now, politicians, police and higher courts are active, but there was no justice to save us when the mob came. Muslims were our neighbors for years, but I do not believe anyone; only Lord Jesus will protect us now," Mrs. Allah Rakhi said. "This will be a sad Easter."
Father Mendes says this incident should convince his fellow citizens that "the misuse of the [blasphemy] law has to be revisited, and strong action has to be taken."
Sister Shamim agrees, saying, "As long as [the blasphemy laws] are there, nothing will change."
Brian O’Neel writes from