Communal tensions are still simmering in a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore that narrowly escaped being burned to ashes on February 18. Located at the end of Dhair, a densely populated town near Shahdara Morh, this Christian neighbourhood is terror-stricken. Christians of the area fear that their houses can be attacked any time in the name of religion.
The young man at the centre of the story, 18-year-old Patras Masih, was remanded to jail on Feb 25, charged under 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code, which is about the use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet (PBUH).
Patras is the main suspect in the Shahdara blasphemy incident, and during interrogation, Patras allegedly named his cousin, Sajid Masih, 24, a janitor in a local college, in the crime. Sajid was promptly summoned to the FIA building holding Patras.
According to Sajid, when he arrived at the building of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) on Temple Road in Lahore on Feb 23, he was tortured and forced to perform sex with his cousin Patras by some officials of the agency. In order to escape this, Sajid jumped from the FIA building and suffered multiple fractures.
“They had called me to come and get my cell phone checked. I went myself to the office where Patras was also present,” Sajid told The News on Sunday (TNS) at Mayo Hospital, after regaining consciousness.
“They beat me with fists and kicks and then with a computer electrical cable,” Sajid continued. “I asked them why they were beating me. They said my fault was that I was Patras’ cousin. Then they told me to call myself and Patras ‘laanti’ [accursed] which I did. Then they ordered me to take Patras’ [trousers] off and perform oral sex on him, but I refused, saying that he was my brother and I couldn’t. Then they started yelling at me.”
“Finding no other way, I jumped from the window – I do not know what happened after that.”
Sajid was first taken to General Hospital but after a few hours he was shifted to Mayo Hospital. There he was operated upon, and now he is stable. His broken jaw needs an operation which, according to his brother Wajid Masih who has been by his side in the hospital, will be done later. So far, operations have been performed on both his legs.
“Because his blood pressure and breathing is not normal so his broken jaw can not be operated upon, but it will be fixed later when he feels better,” said Wajid.
Khalid Saeed, the FIA inspector investigating the case, lodged a criminal case against Sajid at the Civil Lines Police Station, the day after he jumped from the FIA building. The charge against him? Attempted suicide.
The FIR against Sajid reads that “During the investigation, Sajid was questioned in the presence of Patras Masih regarding the blasphemous pictures of Prophet Muhammad’s (Peace Be Upon Him) grave. The forensic expert took his cell phone and asked for his Facebook username and password. On this, Sajid became terrified and apologised, saying he had deleted the controversial page and the blasphemous pictures. Fearful of recovery of the pictures, Sajid jumped off the window and fell on a car porch.”
The FIA Deputy Director Khawaja Hammad told BBC Urdu that Patras Masih was beaten on the court premises by complainants when he was presented there on Feb 23. He told the BBC that a request had been sent to Facebook to provide information about the group in which the blasphemous picture was posted.
“During the investigation, Patras mentioned Sajid, after which he was asked to join the investigation. When Sajid was being interrogated, he first threw his cell phone from the window and then hung outside the window to threaten us. Then his hand slipped and he fell down,” Hammad said.
However, the account of the FIA Deputy Director and that of the inspector do not match. This in itself, says a lot about the case. Unfortunately, however, Sajid’s family does not have the means, or the backing, to lodge a case against the FIA.
According to the First Information Report lodged at Shahdara Police Station by the members of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYR), the case of blasphemy began when a blasphemous picture was posted on a Facebook group named Pagalon Ki Basti [The town of freaks] on January 16. The FIR states that it was Patras who posted the blasphemous picture. No one lodged a complaint against Patras for about a month, but on the morning of Feb 18, hundreds of men, several of whom were holding kerosene oil cans and were armed with sticks, surrounded the Christian houses. They shouted that they would set the entire Christian neighbourhood on fire if Patras was not handed over to them.
By afternoon, the Grand Trunk Road was also blocked and roughly 700 Christian families fled from Dhair to save their lives. Patras, who was working as a sweeper in a nearby bank, was handed to the police that evening. It appeared that things were settling down, but terrified Christians were still not ready to return to their homes.
On the evening of Feb 20, a few Christians and dozens of Muslims held a press conference at Shahdara Police Station with the effort of the Superintendent of Police Syed Ali Raza, so that the Christians could return to their neighbourhood.
The clerics of TLYR were angry that Christians were hell bent on disrespecting their religion and that several such incidents had taken place. However, at this press conference, a written agreement was reached between members of the Christian community and TLYR stating that the Christians could return to their homes on the condition that they ensure that no such incident of blasphemy takes place in the future. The agreement also demanded that Christians “will respect the religion of Muslims, their holy places and their religious festivals and their leaders will teach the same to the members of their community”. It was signed by four Christians, including MPA Mary Gill.
From the press conference, the signatories, Syed Ali Raza and members of the Muslim community went directly to the Christian neighbourhood at the end of Dhair, to send a message to the Christians that the danger was over and they could return to their homes.
“Everyone could return except Bishop Emmanuel Masih or he would suffer the consequences,” some of the locals rumbled despite the agreement. They believed that he was the one who had earlier let Patras Masih escape. But in fact, the Bishop knew nothing about Patras or the Facebook post.
One of Patras’ neighbours, Nasreen Umar, tells her version of events from Feb 18, and how they involved the Bishop: “When I returned home at around 12pm on Feb 18, the day the tension was very high, I saw hundreds of men shouting and there was also a large number of police personnel standing in front of my home. My first fear was that my eldest son might have had a fight but then came to know that our next door neighbour Patras had committed blasphemy. The police also seemed powerless. They told us to leave to save our lives.”
Umar goes on to explain that the only man who made a difference was Bishop Emmanuel. “No one dared to talk to the angry mob but then Bishop Emmanuel Masih went up and stood in front of them and asked how could they burn the entire neighbourhood for the wrong done by one person,” said Umar. Several other Christians from the area have verified this. “The Bishop bought some time from them and during that time Patras was surrendered to the Shahdara Police Station.”
Bishop Emmanuel has mounted a five feet tall wooden cross on the gate of his house, which is located in the same neighbourhood. When the protestors arrived, they wanted to break the cross.
“We were not there but those who had stayed back resisted and did not allow the Cross to be brought down,” said Pastor Safaniya Masih who is running the Brethren’s Church in the same area. “A few Christian girls were returning to their neighbourhood, when some local Muslim boys shouted that sooner or later the houses of Christians would be set on fire. But we are hopeful that God will be with us and keep us safe in this troubled time.”
Most Christian parliamentarians remained indifferent to the incident despite the fact that it caused hundreds of Christian families to be uprooted from their homes. Eventually, when Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf member Shunila Ruth raised the issue in the Assembly on February 27, the Punjab Assembly Deputy Speaker Sardar Sher Ali Gorchani snubbed her for raising a question on law enforcement agencies, as can be seen in videos of her speech.
The village air is filled with the smell of cow dung. Several households keep buffalos and sell milk to various parts of the city. Over the years, its population has grown in leaps and bounds and it has now become a densely populated residential area. It is populated with big and small houses, meaning that people from differing economic backgrounds live here. Similarly, some of its streets are wide and well maintained, while others are still narrow.
Many Christians have migrated to the neighbourhood at the edge of Dhair, from other districts over the last three decades and almost all of them do menial jobs in banks, schools etc. Many of them have come from villages in the search of jobs and a better life in the city.
“The landlords sold small plots to Christians on easy instalments [this began about 30 years ago] because our poor fellows were unable to give a lump sum amount to buy the property. Now they have paid all the money only to discover that the landlords have sold the land to several people simultaneously. Our people have no proper legal documents, except stamp papers,” said Pastor Safaniya Masih. “More than half of the houses of Christians are sold and bought only on a stamp paper since there is no registry in this area.”
“Right after 2013 elections, several Christians were thrown out of their houses from the Christian neighbourhood at the end of Dhair and their land was occupied by the locals. I worked hard and with help from the police and government officials had their property returned to them. Since then, the situation has been under control but after this incident the fear of being thrown out has again returned,” Bishop Emmanuel told TNS.
Christians living in this community face daily pressures. Their young men are beaten, while the women face street harassment. Christian residents say that this is done to continually suppress them. “They want us to run away from here but we have no other place to go,” said Musarat Bibi, 45, a housewife who also lives in the Christian neighbourhood.
There are several small pockets of Christians in this vicinity that are illegal settlements. In March 2013, Joseph Colony, an illegal settlement, only a few kilometres away and in the same provincial constituency was set on fire before the general elections. The Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto action against this attack and observed that land grabbing was the motive behind the arson attack.
Both Patras and Sajid, have had nominal education. “Most of the Christians in the locality are illiterate. They can hardly use a cell phone,” said Younatan Masih, a college student from the area. “They get their Facebook accounts made by someone more literate and then use Facebook for pictures only, and Patras Masih is no different.”
I.A. Rehman, human rights activist and senior journalist, told TNS that the FIA had committed a crime of the highest order by torturing suspects in custody. “A week has passed and the government has shown no seriousness to bring the culprits to task. We know that people misuse this law for personal gains. In that case, the government should have actually shown a more proactive stance so that no one is tortured in custody when accused under this law.”
Rehman also commented on how the blasphemy law is often misused to dispossess people from katchi abadis. “I don’t know about this particular instance, but it is observed that katchi abadi residents are forced to flee their houses after using such accusations against them,” he said.