A series of violent riots against Pakistani Christians in the past decade has concerned human rights watchers and religious minorities in Pakistan.
The latest deadly incident, which took place just two months ago, raised questions about what, if anything, can be done to prevent such violence.
The March incident when a Muslim mob burned down a Christian neighborhood in Lahore, echoed a similar incident in the rural town of Gojra four years earlier. Nine people were killed when rioters torched two Christian neighborhoods over rumors the Christians had celebrated a wedding by showering the groom with pages torn from the Quran. Despite hundreds of arrests, no one was tried for the riots, and relatives of those killed have now fled Pakistan.
In 2009, the Punjab government asked a senior judge to investigate how to prevent incidents like the one in Gojra. The judge interviewed nearly 600 witnesses, including senior politicians and intelligence officials, producing a 318-page report detailing who was responsible for the violence. But the full report was not released until recently – nearly four years after the riots.
It implicates members of Pakistan Muslim League-N, at the time just recently elected to power, and recommends Pakistan's blasphemy laws be reformed to prevent future violence. According to the report, the Interservices Intelligence (ISI) and local intelligence agencies knew banned extremist groups like Sipah-e-Sahaba were organizing the mobs, yet authorities did not take preventative action.
“Everything could have been avoided, if the local administration did what they were supposed to do,” says Mehboob Khan, who headed fact-finding trips to Gojra for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Like the riot in Lahore this year, Mr. Khan says police had several days to curtail growing threats from Muslim extremists in Gojra.
On July 30, 2009, members of Sipah-e-Sahaba led a mob that burned down the entire village of Korian over the blasphemy accusation. The next day, preachers at three local mosques used their Friday sermons to demand that Gojra's Christian community – some 40,000 people – be expelled. They announced rallies the next day.
The next day, busloads of seminary students from the nearby town of Jhang – a radical Sunni stronghold – joined the rallies, which were addressed by local PML-N leaders and preachers from Sipah-e-Sahaba.
Bishop John Samuel, who heads an Anglican community in Gojra, says local police should have stopped the meetings and arrested those calling for more violence. “There had already been one fire, why did the police allow these meetings?” he asks.
By that evening, crowds from the rallies made their way to the Christian neighborhood near the center of Gojra.
Despite the efforts of some religious leaders to disperse the crowd, the mob began throwing stones at the homes, and some began shooting at Christians.
Hameed Maseeh, a Christian, climbed on top of his roof and began firing back, but he was shot and killed. The crowd of Muslims swelled to more than 7,000, and some began setting fire to the Christian homes.
According to the report, police that were supposed to protect the Christians told them to flee, before leaving the scene themselves. “At the height of the riot, they [the police] were nowhere to be seen,” recalls Bishop Samuel.
Hameed Masih's family – unwilling to leave his body behind – locked themselves inside their home. Seven of them, including two children and three women, died when the mob set fire to their home.
Maseeh's son accused 17 people – including the regional PML-N head and several Sipah-e-Sahaba leaders – of the murders. Though 113 suspects were arrested, all were released within months because witnesses refused to testify against them.
Peter Jacob, head of the minority rights group National Council for Justice and Peace, says the witnesses were systematically threatened into silence. In 2010, Hameed Masih's surviving family left Pakistan, fearing for their lives. In their absence, Pakistani courts dropped the murder case.
Two police commanders that left the scene as mobs torched Christian homes were suspended for a few months, but cleared by a subsequent departmental investigation. They have since been promoted.
The PML-N leader that had helped lead the Muslim mobs was elected to the provincial assembly in elections earlier this month.
In the years since the riots, the Punjab government has rebuilt the hundreds of homes that had been torched in Gojra. Christians in the area claim everything has gone back to normal.
“We have no problems with the Muslims, everything is fine,” said a Christian shopkeeper in Korian whose home was burned down, refusing to be named.
But Bishop Samuel says more than 50 families have chosen to leave Pakistan since the riots.
While it does not call for repealing the blasphemy laws completely, the Gojra report recommends removing specific protections for Muslims, and enacting measures to discourage fabricated cases. Rights groups say blasphemy accusations are often rooted in disputes over money or property.
“Reform is the first step,” Bishop Samuel says, “If we can't finish the laws completely in Pakistan, at least charge the person making false claims.”
Jacob points out police have prevented violence in cases where they have seriously investigated blasphemy accusations.
“People didn't believe the law was being misused [before],” says Khan, “but slowly ... they are starting to see examples of it.”
When a teenaged Christian girl was accused of blasphemy last year, the case was heard by the same judge who conducted the Gojra inquiry. Citing a lack of evidence, the judge dismissed the case, ordering the accuser's arrest instead.