Pakistan Frees 40 Christians After 5 Years in Prison for ‘Terrorism’

Forty Pakistani Christians, who’ve been on trial for the murder of two men during a violent protest following Easter suicide attacks on two churches in Youhanabad—a majority-Christian area in Lahore—have been freed by the Lahore Anti-Terrorism Court.

Two others, arrested with them, have already died, allegedly due to a lack of access to medical treatment.

The twin suicide bombings, on March 15, 2015, which killed 17 and injured another 80, were claimed by a splinter group of the Taliban, Jamaat-ul-Ahrar. The death toll would have been much higher if church volunteers on “security duty” had not acted quickly to defend worshippers.

In riots that erupted following the bomb blasts, a mob killed two Muslim men whom they believed had been involved in the attacks. In the end, 42 Christians went on trial for their murder, but two died in prison before 2018. The other 40 have been waiting for their appeal to be heard by the Lahore High Court. Meantime, the group has reached a financial settlement with the families of the two men, which under Pakistani law allows for their acquittal.

The Anti-Terrorism Court announced the verdict on January 29, acquitting all, including those who had died, after recording the statements of the victims’ families, who told the court that they had arrived at an agreement with the suspects and would have no objections over their acquittal.

A local reacted: “As we give thanks as Christians in Pakistan, one cannot get away from the brutal realities of what this means. The journey of physical, emotional, and spiritual healing ahead is a long one. Pray for the right people to be positioned alongside them.

“We also reflect on the lives and deaths of the two [who died in prison]. If they had not, the release of the 40 would not have happened. Their deaths acted as catalysts and became an advocacy bridge for pushing for action and justice.”

Background

In 2015, the Christians of Youhanabad had been angry in the immediate aftermath of the twin suicide attacks on their churches because in 2014, Pakistan’s Supreme Court had ordered the creation of a special police force to protect minority worship places—but this had been later scrapped. Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Minister, Khalil Tahir Sandhu, had said “there was no need of raising another force for this purpose” because the protection of worship places “was quite satisfactory in the Punjab and reasonable security was being provided.”

Napoleon Qayyum, who lived 100 yards from one of the bombed churches, said police were not providing security to the church: “The local police station had been requested to provide a walk-through gate for security, but no such measure was put in place.”

A Catholic nun, Sister Arsene, who had reached one church 30 minutes after it had been bombed, tried to explain to the BBC why the subsequent anger had spilled out of control. “We’re treated as second-class citizens. We’d like the government to give Christians our due place and due right. That’s why the angry youths reacted.”

At the time, there were conflicting reports about the two men set upon by the angry mob. Some reports said the two carried weapons; other reports said they had been firing them.

The two, who had been arrested and put into a police vehicle, were apparently forced out of the vehicle, beaten up, and eventually burned alive on Ferozepur Road. Some social media reported they were suspects thought to have attacked the churches. Other reports said they were, separately, planning to attack another small church in Khaliqnagar, a Christian settlement next to Youhanabad.

However, some days later, they were finally identified as Muhammad Naeem, a local glasscutter, and Babar Nauman, a hosiery worker from Sargodha; it appeared that they had had nothing to do with the church attacks.

News of their murder filled the Pakistani media, somewhat overshadowing the deaths of the 17 Christians and injury to 80 more. As gory images of their lynching ran on TV and more details emerged, for many Pakistanis earlier sympathy with the Christian community slowly turned into animosity. One young Muslim commented on a Facebook post: “Christians (Chuhras) have set on fire two Muslims today. I am only sad about their death.” (“Chuhra” is a pejorative term often used to describe Christians.)

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Source: Christianity Today