The accused are considered guilty until proven innocent in Pakistan. And in a country where blasphemy laws allow for severe punishment or death for insulting Islam, Muhammad, or the Quran, rumors can carry the weight of law, spreading like wildfire and igniting a wave of violence against the country's small Christian minority.
That's what happened in Pakistan's Punjab province, where militant groups are using accusations of blasphemy to spark attacks against Christian communities. One of the riots began last month when local mosques broadcast rumors that Christians had desecrated the Quran. The ensuing attack left hundreds of homes destroyed and at least seven Christians, including women and children, dead in the town of Gojra. Witnesses said security forces were slow to respond, and local media characterized the attacks as "Christian and Muslim rioting"-a misleading but nonetheless disturbing trend in a nation some say is slowly slipping into the hands of Islamic extremists.
Another wave of accusations and violence began with a Christian wedding in the village of Korian on July 25. A Christian resident of Korian who identified himself only as Shabir told Compass News that a Muslim funeral was taking place at the same time, and wedding celebrants were told to stop their music.
The wedding proceeded, and the next day Muslims confronted the parents of the bride, accusing their sons of cutting pages out of the Quran the size of currency notes and throwing them in the air during the celebration (it's a common custom to throw coins and currency notes in the air for children to catch during a wedding). The parents denied the accusations but said their sons would apologize if the rumors were found true.
The Muslims responded by beating the father, Talib Masih, and by July 30 incitement to violence spread to local mosques. No proof of the blasphemy charges was found, but Muslim clerics announced from loudspeakers that "if any Christian wanted to save his or her life, then get out of here or they would be killed," Shabir said.
A mob of more than 500 Muslims responded to the incitements by attacking Christians in Toba Tek Singh district. Sources say the mob torched more than 60 homes, and most Christians fled. Baba Sharif Masih, 80, and his wife, 73-year-old Hanifa Bibi, were unable to run and so pleaded for their lives. The mob spared them: "Our house is burnt and everything is gone." Now, Masih told Compass, "Muslim neighbors around are not willing to give us a loaf of bread or a sip of water."
Two days later, similar blasphemy rumors led to a massive rampage seven miles away in the town of Gojra. Authorities cleared an accused Christian of blasphemy charges, but that didn't stop thousands of militants (some authorities said up to 20,000) armed with fuel and weapons from advancing on the town's Christian neighborhood. They looted and torched more than 100 homes during the eight-hour attack.
The Hameed family lived at the entrance to the area and was eating breakfast when the riots began. When 75-year-old Punnan Kahn Hameed opened the door to see what was happening, he was shot dead. The rest of the Christian family fled to the back of the house but soon saw plumes of smoke and realized they were trapped in a burning house.
New York Times reporter Sabrina Tavernise spoke with Ikhlaq Hameed, one of the few family members who survived. He described the frantic scene as they tried to escape, recalling the final images of his aunt as he turned to see her engulfed in flames. Three women, two children, and one man were killed as the roof collapsed in flames.
Some reports say the total number of dead in the attacks reached 14 after burn victims were unable to reach hospitals because of roadblocks set up by Muslim militants.
Christians took to the streets the following day, refusing to quickly bury the dead, as officials had requested, until the government filed a case against two security officers who failed to take action against the mob. Coffins lined railroad tracks for three hours until authorities added the security officers to the formal complaint filed against 20 named and 800 unnamed people accused of instigating and carrying out the violence.
"The Pakistan government always turns a blind eye when Christians are the victims," said Nazir Bhatti, president of the Pakistan Christian Congress. "They provide ample time to militants to kill Christians and burn their properties. The administration moves when the militants have completed the destruction of Christian properties."
Witnesses concur that this was indeed the case in the Gojra attack. "The way things were moving in Gojra, no rocket science was needed to predict this fallout," Napolean Qayyum, a member of a Christian advocacy group, told Compass.
One Pakistani pastor, who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons, said there is a great need for justice in the wake of these attacks: "It seems that over the years, Pakistani society has become intolerant of non-Muslims both in the country and outside the country. There is need to publicly condemn unholy acts of such elements who do not fear the law and by bringing them to justice, the authorities can make an example for the rest of the people."
Christian and human-rights groups are watching to see how Pakistan responds to the atrocities and the demands of extremists. "The authorities must take note of these patterns of failures of the local police, remove such elements from their office and punish those who fail to provide protection to fellow citizens," said the pastor.
Muslim groups in Gojra held a press conference on Aug. 5, calling on the government to release the imams listed in the formal complaint who threatened to hang Talib Masih, the father of the sons falsely accused of desecrating the Quran.
Investigators believe a banned pro-Taliban group, Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and its al-Qaeda--linked offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, were behind the attacks. The government recently received an intelligence report stating that militants are transitioning from suicide attacks to incitement of sectarian strife in their efforts to destabilize the country, and the growing presence of SSP and other militant groups in central and southern Punjab has led many analysts to predict a new militant stronghold in the province.
That threat could grow as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Malik Ishaq is released from jail on bail next month as expected. Ishaq has been linked to at least 70 killings, but a 1990 law, which allows criminals and victims to settle out of court, has made it difficult to convict him and others.
Bhatti says Pakistan's blasphemy laws-some of the most extreme in the Muslim world-are the root cause of Christian persecution and a violation of human rights. The current ruling party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, vowed to amend the laws but has yet to do so. The government has ordered an investigation into the Punjab attacks and is issuing monetary compensation to those who lost family members and homes. But Christians say they hope for more meaningful actions in the near future-such as repealing Pakistan's one-sided laws.
Pakistani Christians are taking action to promote awareness of the blasphemy laws and how they've affected Christians. Instead of commemorating the government-endorsed "minorities day" on Aug. 11, Pakistani Christians are planning "black day" activities that include peaceful demonstrations and a display of black flags in various locations around the world.
The Jamba Erabia Madrasa on the outskirts of Islamabad cannot be seen from the main road. A gas station hides the small dirt road leading to the still-under-repair three-story building. The front green metal gate, made in a typical Islamic fashion, leads to a long white hallway, where carved white seats each face a faucet to wash feet and hands. The main courtyard and mosque were built in 1979 with private money from locals and influential Pakistanis from outside the area. The madrasa gets all its money from private donors, which makes it very hard to trace, as Saudis are known to have poured millions into Pakistan.
About 30 young men from the age of 13 to 20 attend, sent by their parents for a 2-3 year training program. It is organized around a rigorous schedule that begins at 4 in the morning and only ends when the students go to bed at 11 at night. Their time is organized around five daily prayers and the memorization of the Quran. The memorization dictates how good a Muslim these children will become.
One of these children, Abdul Manaam, a Pashtun from the remote North West Frontier Province, was sent by his parents to Jamba Erabia to escape the war-torn province, where resurgent Taliban adherents are waging war with Pakistani forces as well as U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The 8-year-old boy does not speak Urdu, the language of Pakistan, nor Arabic, the language of the Quran, and understands very little about the Pakistani madrasa culture that is likely to shape his future.
In 2002 the Pakistani government, as the key U.S. ally in the region following al-Qaeda's attack on the United States, vowed to reform madrasas, where over 1.5 million mostly poor children are provided free religious education, boarding, and lodging. But Jamba Erabia is testimony to the failed reform effort.
Madrasas not only in the north but in central areas like Punjab, where recent attacks against Christians took place, are growing while public government-funded education in Pakistan is in decline. That trend is a concern in the face of expanding insurgency by Pakistani-based Taliban and al-Qaeda linked groups-offering little instruction beyond Quran memorization and developing militant sympathies.
-with reporting by Jonathan Alpeyrie, a photojournalist living in New York