On June 30, a mob beat up a 35-year-old Christian man, shaved his head, blackened his face, put shoes in his neck, and dragged him around in his village, before he was rescued by Sheikhupura police.
Awais Qamar is a father of four. His wife Rukhsana and two other relatives were also beaten up and had their faces blackened with soot, after some local Muslims were angered upon hearing that the family had been using a salvaged advertising banner as a mat. The banner, containing the emblems of various colleges, also included a short verse from the Holy Quran.
Qamar, who also is known as Gharibu, which means a poor man in the Punjabi language, was boring for a new tube well about two kilometers away from his village Maki 460 in Farooqabad, about 50 miles northwest of Lahore. It was about 9:30am when a man in the local mosque announced from its loudspeaker that Qamar had desecrated the Holy Quran. He was summoned to the village for “committing blasphemy.”
A mob had begun to gather by then. Only one Christian man stood between Gharibu and the mob.
“As soon as I had come to know about this issue, I rushed to meet the people and assured them that Christians would punish Gharibu, but they should not take law in their own hands,” said Nazir Masih, who is Gharibu’s neighbor. “But the people in the mob said that the sin was too grave and was unpardonable, and the only punishment was death.” Nazir offered to banished him from the village, but they wnted to kill him.
Two brothers – Muhammad Riaz (23) and Muhammad Niaz (30) – barbers by occupation – were on the forefront in instigating the mob to attack him, locals say. The two brothers shaved Gharibu’s head and blackened his face, and also the faces of his wife Rukhsana, their young daughter Farzana, and his brother, they said. Men were beating Gharibu while women were beating his wife Rukhsana. Then the mob made a cord of shoes and put it in Gharibu’s neck, and dragged him in the streets while beating him.
Only one Christian man stood between Gharibu and the mob
“I immediately informed the police at 15, and apprised them of the deteriorated law and order situation in the village,” said Pastor Asif Bashir, who serves in the Seventh Day Adventist Church, situated near Gharibu’s house.
Even before the police arrived, some influential Muslims from a nearby village were urged by the police to intervene. One such person, requesting anonymity, said Gharibu’s brother Ashraf works for him while his father Siraj Masih had been employed by him for menial labor for long.
“I had to intervene after I heard Ashraf’s wife Rehana was also being beaten up,” he said. “Also, a police officer informed me that there was no issue of blasphemy and only illiterate villagers were making something out of nothing. I took Ashraf with me and reached the scene, and told the mob to stop immediately or face the consequences, as the police were on their way.”
Additional Superintendent of Police Muhammad Jawad Tariq and Saddar Police Station House Officer Farooq Ranja were about to arrive. “I was on my way to Nankana Sahib and very near the village when I was alerted to respond to the violence at any cost,” said Jawad Tariq. “The mob didn’t resist too much and handed over the Christians to us. We just put them in police vans and sped away, moving from one place to another, and finally to the City Police Station, as it is much safer and better equipped than the Saddar Police Station.”
District Police Officer Sohail Zafar Chattha, who is popular for taking unpopular decisions to establish the rule of law, posted on Facebook in the evening, that “a big human tragedy has been averted by the Sheikhupura police. My direction to them (the staff members who had arrived before him) was categorical: save the couple at any cost even if you have to shoot the perpetrators.”
But people continued to gather, calling for retribution. “Some of them were even raising slogans to throw out all Christians from the village and set their houses on fire. Others were saying to socially boycott all the Christians and never hire them for labor,” said Nazir Masih.
Realizing the gravity of the situation, Mr Chattha arrived on the scene and told the mob they would not to allowed to even touch the local church or any Christian house. But the mob wanted the police to register a blasphemy case.
Earlier that morning, Rukhsana’s Muslim female friend Kaneez Asghar told her that the roll-up banner carried a verse of the Holy Quran, according to Nazir. Rukhsana had brought the used banner from Faisalabad, where her parents live. She told Kaneez that if she wanted to have it, then she should pay for it. “Kaneez went home to bring the money, but she brought back Nasir Bhatti, who slapped Rukhsana and took away the banner,” says Nazir Masih. “The matter could have been settled, but Muhammad Riaz and Muhammad Niaz kept inciting people to take revenge. The two brothers run a barber’s shop very close to Gharibu’s house.”
He said the two siblings had set up an ice stall outside Qamar’s house, and they and their visitors would harass them with abusive comments. Rukhsana had complained about it to their mother.
Mr Chattha, the district police officer, said that the “local mullah who instigated the public and orchestrated the show was arrested.” A source, requesting anonymity, said the crowd was pressuring the police so that the cleric, whose name has not been revealed, could be released. But the police were not intimidated.
“The mob later demanded that an FIR be registered against the Christians. We refused! The Inspector General of Punjab Police has categorically directed us to verify a case personally before registering such FIRs,” the DPO said.
Police will remain deployed in front of the church for some time, he said. “If there will be a need, a permanent checkpost could be set up to ensure a peaceful environment. However, I have advised that Gharibu and his family should not return to the place. That could endanger their lives.” The DPO said “almost half of the police force of the district was deployed to bring the situation under control.”
Mr Chattha said that the police were set to take action against the perpetrators who incited the violence. “We will not let the people get away – the people who triggered this tragedy in the first place, and those who blackened the victims’ faces and beat them.”
Last June, the Supreme Court of Pakistan ordered that “in all cases of violation of any of the rights guaranteed under the law or desecration of the places of worship of minorities, the concerned Law Enforcing Agencies should promptly take action including the registration of criminal cases against the delinquents.” In January, the Supreme Court had summoned the police officers who had failed to save a Christian couple in Kot Radha Kishan from being lynched and burned alive in November 2014, despite being present on the crime scene. The judges said that the police officers could at least have shot gunfire in the air to disperse the mob.
According to the daily Dawn, a joint investigation committee constituted by the police informed the court in March that the “investigation branch has concluded that the ASI knew that a crisis was brewing a day before the ugly incident happened… Sub-Inspector Mohammad Ali, who was in charge of the factory area checkpost of Kot Radha Kishan police station, and Constables Mohammad Saleem, Ahmed Din and Hakim Ali, have been held responsible for not acting in a manner befitting a police officer. All of them were armed and could have at least fired in the air to ward off the mob. The report said that their inaction was not condonable.”
Rabia Ghani, project manager for the Pattan Development Organization, which works with members of Pakistan’s parliament on human-rights issues, applauded the police’s quick rescue of the victims and refusal to lodge a report against them.
“It is the need of time to push governments to have standard operating procedures for such cases and on how police should deal with cases of religious minorities,” Ghani wrote in an email. “The police should identify specific actions and behaviors to not just ensure non-discrimination, but strict action and transparency. They should be equipped with knowledge of an adequate, sensitive and proper response.”
The “Prime Minister of Pakistan called me from Norway where he is on a state visit and praised efforts of Sheikhupura police in saving lives of innocent Christian couple”, Mr Chattha said on Facebook. “He said that our efforts were exemplary and had brought a good name to our country. He also directed to be non-sparing towards culprits. Thank you, Mr Prime Minister, I’m honoured.”