As violence against religious minorities in Pakistan continues to grow unabated, at least one group of Christians has decided it is finally time to fight back.
Earlier this month, in what observers and locals characterize as a very rare occurrence, Christians in the Francisabad neighborhood of Gujranwala stood their ground when a group of Muslims from nearby settlements began attacking their property.
Mobs have stormed through Christian settlements in the central Punjab province with increasing frequency in the last few years, fueled by extremist right-wing sentiment and often using the pretext of blasphemy allegations to justify their actions. In March, for instance, a mob attacked the Christian Badami Bagh area of Lahore after a personal dispute between a Christian and a Muslim mired in blasphemy allegations.
But the clash that erupted in Francisabad was unique in that the Christian community fought back. And while the incident isn't likely to spark a wider campaign of retaliation by Christian groups, it serves as a cautionary tale for Pakistan as its sectarian rift continues to widen.
'Draw the shutters and hide'
Developed in the early 1990s, the settlement of Francisabad is located on the outskirts of Gujranwala and is now home to some 3,500 Christian families, of which 1,800 are Catholic.
The violence there earlier this month was sparked, as is routine in Pakistan, by a personal dispute. According to witnesses, a number of young men were traveling to Francisabad in a large shared rickshaw called a qingqi, listening to music played from the vehicle's speakers. En route, they were joined by two clerics from a nearby colony who were reportedly offended that the men were listening to music.
“The boys said they wouldn’t turn the music off,” says Father Ashraf Gill, the priest at the local Catholic church.
“The clerics asked the boys their religion,” says a local man named Arif, whose brother Mehran was in the rickshaw. “My brother and two of the other boys said that they were Christians. Then the clerics slapped them around and beat up the rickshaw driver as well. My brother came home and told us what happened.”
The same evening, some men from the nearby settlement of Naroke came to Francisabad to talk to Christian leaders about the incident. According to a resident, Emanuel, they were turned back and told that the matter would be discussed in the morning.
The next day, the Christian and Muslim elders scheduled to meet at a police checkpoint in the area. But the Muslim leaders, locals say, arrived two hours before the proposed time, and asked the police to register a blasphemy case against the Christian boys, accusing them of disrespecting the Quran.
The police, Father Gill says, “refused to register the case, because they said there was no proof of the incident.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. A few hours later, Tanzeela Rani – a mother of eight children – was shopping for groceries when she witnessed a new disturbance.
“I saw a mob of several hundred people, accompanied by a police van, storming into the main lane and destroying shops owned by Christians on the way,” she says. “They had arms with them. I said to the shopkeeper, ‘Son, draw the shutters and hide.’ ”
She had that knee-jerk reaction, she says, because of what she had heard about the Badami Bagh attack in Lahore this March, where an entire settlement of Christians in the city was burned by a mob similarly fueled by a false blasphemy allegation touched off by a personal argument.
“One of the mob members tore off my dupatta [a long scarf worn by women], and a police officer tried to hit me,” Ms. Rani says. “I told him that he wouldn’t be able to touch me. There was a whole crowd of women from the colony and we were ready to defend and save our Francisabad. I managed to rip off the belt and shirt of a police officer and we overturned a trailer that the mob had used.”
Rani says she felt no fear at having to defend Francisabad. “God helped us, and we were able to battle spiritedly.”
Reclaiming the peace
Residents quickly amassed at the Catholic church, while the mob gained ground and began to gather outside. The Christian men of the neighborhood – who were armed – retaliated when the Muslim mob opened fire.
This is virtually unheard of in Pakistan. 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.
The new reaction this time, however "is because there was an environment of fear that had been created,” Gill says. “People can feel this. Francisabad was saved because people stepped up to defend themselves.”
The situation was eventually defused when the elders of the settlements involved stepped in. They have created a peace committee to encourage dialogue between groups and lobby the police to drop all charges relating to the case.
At the same time, however, Francisabad’s locals aren’t taking any chances with their safety. A group of young men in the neighborhood have been assigned to a security patrol. Politicians and clerics have also played a positive role, locals say, and there was relatively quick action by the government.
“It was a fight over a baseless accusation,” Gill says. “But this blasphemy law has become a weapon in the hands of Muslims. The blasphemy law is used as a way to gain control of property and shops. This demented mentality is seeping into young people.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan noted in its 2012 report that Pakistan has made no progress over the past year in stamping out "pervasive intolerance that undermined the freedom of religious belief and found expression in ever increasing incidents of intimidation and violence against religious and sectarian minorities.”
According to the report, eight Christians were charged with blasphemy last year. Francisabad’s residents also complain of the discrimination at the workplace, including at government departments, while others say getting a public sector job means paying hundreds of thousands of rupees as bribes.
The Gujranwala police have filed a case against several hundred Muslims and over three dozen Christians for rioting on April 3. Church leaders are trying to get the charges dropped to help keep the peace.
But peace is still elusive in Francisabad. Father Gill told his congregation recently that he was going to help people get over the psychological trauma of the siege of the area. On April 14, the church organized a series of cricket matches to get people’s minds off the attack. But nerves were too raw for the community to feel comfortable inviting Muslims to play or watch, Gill says.
“There is still a lot of tension,” Gill says.