JARANWALA, Pakistan (BP) – An outlawed extremist Muslim group has been charged with inciting destructive riots in Pakistan after two Christian brothers were falsely accused of blasphemy there.
Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP) clerics shouted inflammatory slogans from Mosque loudspeakers after the brothers were accused of defacing a Quran, Reuters reported Aug. 21, citing police and community members as sources.
Rioters burned 20 churches, vandalized 80 homes, burned belongings and desecrated a Christian cemetery, many news outlets reported. No deaths were reported.
“Better to die if you don’t care about Islam,” police accused one cleric of saying, global news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) said Aug. 19.
“That cleric should have understood that when you gather people in such a charged environment … in a country in which people were already very sensitive about (blasphemy) it is like adding fuel to fire,” AFP quoted police.
“He’s not saying that go and burn their houses. But when the mob gathers, it’s really impossible to control that.”
TLP clerics denied the accusations, police said, and joined peace efforts after the riot in attempts to dupe police.
The TLP, with a rallying cry of “death to blasphemers,” is mainly focused on protecting Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws. The group has been active in electoral politics since the 2016 execution of Mumtaz Qadri, a police guard who received the death penalty for assassinating Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in 2011. Taseer had sought to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
While approximately 130 Muslims were arrested after the riots, the two Christian brothers were also arrested for blasphemy.
The case began after Muslims in Jaranwala accused 24-year-old Umar Saleem, known as Rocky, of tearing pages from the Quran and writing defamations on the pages in red, Morning Star News reported. Rocky’s brother Raja, 21, was also charged.
Reportedly, the defaced pages were found in the street with Rocky’s and Raja’s names, addresses and national identities attached. The two men, members of a Full Gospel Assemblies church, surrendered to police. Charges against them are punishable by life imprisonment and death.
A court ordered the two men be held in police custody seven days for questioning, Reuters reported Aug. 21. Their release date would be this week, but there are no reports of the charges being dropped.
False charges of blasphemy are a common method of persecution of Christians in Pakistan, but Pakistani officials have admitted the mob attacks were a “planned conspiracy,” Morning Star reported.
Punjab Caretaker Chief Minister Mohsin Naqvi told Christian leaders that the government would restore the churches and homes damaged or destroyed in the incident.
“Whatever damages took place, as a government, Muslims and humans, we will restore them,” Morning Star quoted Naqvi.
Another leader quote in Morning Star News, Pakistan Ulema Council Chairman Hafiz Tahir Ashrafi, apologized for the violence and said he was committed to protecting Christians, calling them “our Christian brothers.
“We are ashamed,” he said.