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Stench of police collusion in land grab as Christian village is burned

HONG KONG (SE): Police collusion is strongly suspected in a massive arson attack on the Christian Joseph Colony in the Pakistani city of Lahore on March 9 and legal people are questioning whether there is a property-related agenda behind the attack.

The chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudry, rejected the police report on the incident during a hearing in the Supreme Court on March 11, accusing them of sheltering criminals and failing to act to prevent the violence, even though he believes they had prior knowledge that it was being planned.

He asked if a property-related matter was the real reason behind what he called police collusion in the attack, which was carried out by around 3,000 Muslim men.

It occurred on the morning of March 9, destroying at least 160 homes of low to middle class Christians and 18 shops, as well as one Catholic church and a Seventh Day Adventist complex.

Sister Marie Cecile Osborne, the principal of the Jesus Mary and Joseph Convent School in Lahore, said, “In 2012, elements close to Shahbaz Sharif, the chief minister of the Punjab, and his brother, Nawaz Sharif, the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly, were involved in a politico-police action to grab land in Lahore belonging to the Catholic Church.”

Prior to the looting and burning of Joseph Colony, a 25-year-old Christian man, Sawan Masih, was accused of blasphemy by Imran Shahid, a crime that is punishable by death.

Masih and Imran had been friends. Dilawar Masih, a Christian whose shop was destroyed in the attack, said, “Both Imran (Shahid) and Sawan (Masih) were close friends. Imran has made the allegation only to settle a personal score, because they had quarrelled over some petty matter.”

The police then visited the area and advised the Christian people to leave, which most of them did. 

But so did the police, who then did nothing to protect the property, even though they knew trouble was brewing.

Long time missionary to Pakistan, Father Robert McCulloch, told the Sunday Examiner that he was told from Lahore that a mob of Muslim people had gone to the police station on the morning of March 9 and asked them to identify the accused.

The mob then proceeded to Joseph Colony and ransacked it.

A member of the Punjabi Police Force, Multan Khan, identified the members of the mob as coming from the Pakhtun community.

The chief justice, Chaudry, told the police during the hearing in the Supreme Court that they must have had prior knowledge about the attack when they advised people to evacuate the colony.

He also asked the inspector general of the Punjabi Police force why security measures had not been put in place when he knew there was trouble brewing.

Chaudry was critical of the police for failing to register a First Information Report immediately after the attack took place. He also rejected the report, which he complained was handed in late, saying that it does not address the cause of the trouble nor does it detail any action being taken against those responsible.

The president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, and the prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, have ordered an immediate inquiry.

Zadari called for a full report, saying that such attacks against Pakistani Christians tarnish the image of the country.

Ashraf ordered the inquiry to prevent any similar incidents from occurring.

The law minister for the Pubjab, Rana Sanaullah, said on Lahore television, “These people committed a serious crime… there was no moral, legal or religious ground to indulge in such an act.”

Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, criticised the Punjabi provincial government, saying, “It totally failed in providing protection to a minority under siege.”

Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani and Peter Jacob, from the National Commission for Justice and Peace, said in a press statement, “The political leadership in the country cannot find the courage to address the suffering of religious minorities, especially those related to abuse of blasphemy laws.”

The commission called on the government to act for legal reform of the blasphemy laws.

Rome-based Father McCulloch quoted a senior ambassador to the Holy See as saying, “I am afraid that Pakistan is arguably one of the worst offenders in the world at the present moment in terms of providing a permissive environment for violence against Christians.”

On March 10 in Karachi, Multan and Lahore, Christians took to the streets in protest against what they called religious-based violence and condemned the blasphemy laws, which they said are continually abused and misused by the police, as well as the judiciary, in the name of Islam.

Sister Osborne questioned police action at the rallies, asking why they did nothing to protect Christians at Joseph Colony, but used what she called excessive force against those joining in the rallies.

She said that they acted in a brutal manner and baton charged the people in the streets, arresting some of them.

Sister Osborne said after she visited the destroyed Joseph Colony on March 12, “It is much worse than what we are seeing on the news. The smell of burning is everywhere and clothes and things are still smouldering. We took food. There are camps set up there mainly for women and children.”

She described the atmosphere as being charged and called it a scene of suffering, adding that the people have no food, no hygiene or milk for the children. “Everything is gone,” she lamented.

“During the arson, steel girders melted, which indicates the use of high-intensity chemicals and points to pre-meditated action,” Sister Osborne observed. “All homes were looted first and then burned.”

She also accused the police of colluding in the attack. “Indications are the police were ordered to leave the scene before the violence began.” She implied strongly that the Sharif brothers are behind the whole affair in their attempt to get property.

She added that in a face-saving gesture, the provincial government has begun building shacks on the charred earth, as the people have returned to prevent illegal possession of their land.

However, she pointed out that they are no compensation for the well-constructed homes the people had built for themselves.

A retired military officer, Zafar Ahmad, stated, “There are no words and no emotions can convey the real feelings of any educated human being, irrespective of the race and religion. This is one of those occasions when I feel ashamed of being a Pakistani. I pray that God guides us to be tolerant of each other and to the ability to learn to live in peace and harmony with each other… like we used to before we handed over our reins to the mullah.”

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