When i decided to join HRCP’s fact finding mission to Gojra, the only thing I had in my mind that it will give me a chance to observe things closely. Later I got the opportunity to write a report on Gojra findings for HRCP which will give the readers an idea how things have been in last one year for Christians after Gojra massacre. I tried to capture many things during my visit and I hope these pictures will help in understanding the situation.
Below is the report:
An Uncertain Peace
Gojra—One Year On
(Report of an HRCP Fact-Finding Mission)
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan
A fact-finding mission of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had visited Gojra on August 2, 2009, a day after a violent mob had torched nearly 50 houses in Christian Colony, an almost exclusively Christian neighbourhood there. Eight Christians had been killed as a result of those attacks.
Almost a year later, HRCP decided to send a follow-up fact-finding mission to Gojra to investigate three issues:
- Whether the affected families have been adequately compensated?
- Have the culprits been brought to justice, or are they being properly tried?
- What is the state of inter-communal relations in the area?
The HRCP team found that most of the torched houses and a destroyed church had been reconstructed by the provincial government and the standard of construction appeared to be satisfactory. However, the partially destroyed houses had not been rebuilt. Only one-third of the compensation promised to families of the completely destroyed houses had been given and no timeframe had been given for payment of the balance. The federal and Punjab governments had each given 500,000 rupees in compensation to the family of each person killed in the Gojra attacks.
Police claim to have submitted Challan (case file) for trial, but there is no indication of when proceeding would begin. The Christian community feels it is being pressurised to reach a compromise and withdraw the case against the accused. The witnesses in the case are under greater pressure and may not appear in court if the trial is delayed for much longer or if their security is not guaranteed. The Christian population of the area apprehends that conviction of the accused might lead to a backlash against them.
There has been a general outpouring of support and sympathy among the Muslim population for the Christian community after last year’s attacks. The local administration, businessmen, clerics and other representatives of the two communities have worked hard to cultivate peace and harmony and these efforts seem to be yielding fruit. The presence of a strong police contingent in Gojra has contributed significantly to peace in the area. However, extremist elements have tried to inflame emotions and perceptions of impunity for excesses against members of religious minorities have not helped the matter. Ways need to be found to secure inter-faith harmony on sincere and durable basis.
On August 1, 2009, extremists belonging to the majority community attacked a Christian neighbourhood in Gojra, a tehsil (sub-division) of Toba Tek Singh district in Punjab. The attackers looted Christians’ houses, before setting them on fire. Three churches and 47 houses were torched and seven people were burnt alive when the houses were set ablaze. One of the injured later on died in hospital.
The Gojra attacks occurred two days after members of the Christian community had been brutally attacked by a Muslim mob and 57 houses torched in Korianwala, a village in the same tehsil, on allegations of desecration of the Holy Quran, leveled against a Christian villager.
The violent attacks of August 1 were followed by official announcements of compensation for the victims and their families and initiation of a judicial inquiry into the attacks.
An HRCP team that visited Gojra on August 2, 2009 to ascertain the facts had concluded that the August 1 attacks on the Christian community were preplanned and that the administration had been informed about the extremists’ plan in advance but it failed to prevent the bloodshed. (Detailed report of that fact-finding effort is available at HRCP website: http://www.hrcp-web.org/showfact.asp?id=12)
A week before the anniversary of the 2009 attacks, HRCP decided to send a follow-up fact-finding mission to Gojra to assess the situation and developments since the attacks last year.
On July 24, 2010, the HRCP team, including Mr. Mehboob Ahmad Khan, Mr. Waqar Gilani, Mr. Arshad Javed, Dr. Benjamin Barkat, Mr. Ayub Anjum, Ms Nadia Batool and Ms. Sadaf Arshad, met the affected families, journalists, religious leaders and members of the local administration to find out if the promises of compensation and prosecution made by the government soon after the attack had materialized. The decision regarding the follow up fact-finding mission was based on the need to assess the overall situation, with a particular focus to determine the status and adequacy of compensation to the affected families; the status of prosecution of the accused; and the state of inter-communal relations in the area.
The fact-finding team believes that while some progress has been registered on each of the three issues framed by HRCP, mush still needs to be done to satisfy the victims of last year’s grisly riots, and lay the foundations of inter-communal harmony.
Profile of Gojra
Gojra is a sub-division of Toba Tek Singh district in the Punjab province. Gojra town was established in 1896 when colonisation of Lyallpur district (now Faisalabad) began. It is located 32 kilometers from Toba Tek Singh, 50 kilometers from Faisalabad and 157 kilometers from Vehari. Gojra got the status of tehsil in the newly established district of Toba Tek Singh on July 1, 1982.
The Christian population in Gojra city is approximately 30,000, while in Gojra tehsil there are around 100,000 Christians. Chak No. 424-JB, with a population of around 18,000, is the only village in the whole district where the entire population is Christian. There is only one Christian lawyer in Gojra. Though some members of the community work as teachers in government and private schools, most work as domestic help, sanitary workers and agriculture labour. Some are self-employed, mainly running shops and services in Christian neighborhoods, while some are engaged in agriculture on their own land. There are two main Christian churches in Gojra, one for Catholics and the other for Protestants, and two missionary schools, where most of the students are Muslims.
Journalists at Toba Tek Singh Press Club:
The team interacted with a group of journalists at the Toba Tek Singh Press Club including the press club president, Manzoor Naz, and general secretary, Tariq Saeed. Regarding the involvement of Muslim extremist groups such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, the journalists said that the two main Muslim sects in the area—Barelvis and Deobandis—had both joined a rally against the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in Gojra on July 31, 2009. While Barelvis had ended their protest peacefully on that day, the Deobandis led the rally to the Christian Colony where rioters later torched 47 houses. After the first information report (FIR) was lodged with the police regarding the Gojra attacks, 59 people were arrested. Fifty-three were later released on bail. The other six are detained in Toba Tek Singh Jail, and the trial of accused is yet to commence.
The journalists said that a week before the HRCP team’s visit to Gojra on July 24, 2010, police had arrested six accused in the Korianwala attack case, ostensibly because their pre-arrest bail had not been confirmed, but the arrests had come amid concerns of recurring violence against Christians ahead of the anniversary of the Gojra attacks on August 1 and that there were apprehensions that the arrested men could undermine peace in the area.
The journalists said that there is general apprehension in the area of a backlash against the Christian community if the Muslim accused are convicted. They said that a crackdown was recently launched against extremists after new curbs were announced on proscribed militant groups. They believed that if the administration did not take effective measures, the chances of unrest in the area would increase.
Since August 2009, there has been a rise in sympathy towards Christians. Even some extremist elements and Muslim clerics in the area have called the attack on Christians and the subsequent killings unjustifiable.
The report of the judicial inquiry tribunal, consisting of Lahore High Court judge Justice Iqbal Hameedur Rehman, has held police responsible for the events of August 1. It said police should have deployed personnel in adequate numbers to prevent violence against the Christian community. The judge also observed that if a charge of blasphemy is not proven then the complainant should be penalised.
The provincial government has reconstructed a destroyed church and 41 of the 47 houses torched in the Christian Colony. The Punjab government had promised 300,000 rupees to each family in compensation, but only cheques of 100,000 rupees have been given to the affected families so far. The federal and Punjab governments had each given 500,000 rupees in compensation for each person killed.
Khalid Malik, Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Gojra, has been posted in the area for the last eight months. He cited his efforts over this period to alleviate tensions and improve relations between Christians and Muslims. He conceded that mosque loudspeakers had been used to incite violence against the Christians the previous year, but now the law on misuse of loudspeakers was being strictly implemented. He said that there had been some instances of use of loudspeakers for purposes other than Aza’an (call to prayer) over the past year, but such use was not against any sect or religion. The DSP also said that clerics had been warned that they would face the full wrath of the law if they incited communal hatred through Friday sermons.
After last year’s Gojra attacks, a Peace Committee was formed in the city comprising 40 members, including clerics from all Muslim sects, Christian representatives and local businessmen and lawyers. The Christians community formed another body called the 13-Member Committee. The committee has been authorized by the community to stay in touch with the local administration around the clock in case of any emergency or threats to communal harmony.
The DSP said that the Challan (case file) for trial had been submitted to the court, but the trial was yet to start. He said in addition to the tribunal’s inquiry, Punjab Police had conducted a departmental inquiry and those who had neglected their duty had been penalized. However, he added that he lacked details of penalties awarded to policemen as a result of the departmental inquiry.
As many as 400 police personnel, led by three DSPs, have been deputed in Gojra to ensure that the anniversary of the Gojra attacks passes without incident.
In their meetings with the administration, both the Christian and Muslim communities reiterated their desire to promote communal harmony and increase efforts to understand each other’s concerns, the DSP said.
Christians arranged Iftar (evening meal that marks the end of the daily fast) in churches during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and Muslims offered prayers in churches. Christians also went to mosques during the fasting month and shared Iftar with Muslims. A number of religious leaders played an important role in promoting communal harmony.
Meeting with the Christian community
The HRCP team also met members of the Christian community, including several women, at a meeting. The participants included Mr. William Prakash, a member of the 13-Member Committee.
Shaheen Nasir, a schoolteacher, complained of discrimination at the workplace on the basis of religion. He said that he was the only Christian teacher on the 21-member faculty of a private school in Gojra and the majority of the students are also Muslim. He said other teachers try to manipulate the minds of his students by telling them not to be taught by a Christian teacher. However, he said he faced no discrimination on account of his belief from his landlord, who is also a Muslim.
Sameer Samuel, also a schoolteacher, said that construction of half a dozen houses that were destroyed is yet to be completed, but the families had signed forms testifying that the houses had been completed after the contractors beseeched them to do so.
Members of the Christian community complained of receiving only 100,000 rupees out of 300,000 rupees promised as compensation by the Punjab government for each house destroyed. They also said that no compensation had been given for the loss of valuables, and furniture, in the torched houses. One participant complained that three families resided in their house but only one cheque of Rs 100,000 had been given to them.
All participants at the meeting said that they had felt a positive change in the attitude of Muslims since last year’s attacks, and Muslims had repeatedly expressed the desire to attend the anniversary of the Gojra killings along with their clerics. They said that after the murder of two Christian brothers accused of blasphemy in Faisalabad on July 19, 2010, many Muslims had commiserated with Christians. Even members of the administration had condoled with the Christians.
Members of the Christian community said that the situation was peaceful for now but were not certain if that peace would endure. Citing reasons for their apprehension, one participant said, “There are many elements in Gojra which are trying to derail peace and harmony. Mischief makers try to provoke Muslim clerics in the Peace Committee against Christians. One had commented ‘you have fallen to the feet of Christians. See how we shot two dead in Faisalabad’.”
They said that Christians have a strong desire for peaceful co-existence and harmony with Muslims.
They said that they have constantly been reminded that peace is contingent on Christians’ inclination to reach a compromise with the accused named in the police case. “‘There will be consequences if Christians do not agree to reconciliation’, we are often told,” said one participant. “Even Peer Bahar Shah [a Muslim member of Peace Committee acknowledged to be a positive and pacifist influence, even by Christians] has said similar things in an intimidating tone,” he added.
The participants said that many Christians could not join the proceedings before the inquiry tribunal for a number of reasons—some because they were scared that giving statements and recording evidence would invite further attacks; around 35 others could not participate because by the time they finally worked up the courage to appear before the tribunal they were informed that the inquiry had ended. The inquiry lasted from August 5, 2009 until September 5, 2009.
Even those Christians who had joined the inquiry expressed ignorance about its outcome. Not a single member of the Christian community, including church leaders, that the team talked to was aware of the findings of the inquiry tribunal. Most of them did not even know that the inquiry had culminated in a report. Naturally, none of the Christians the team talked to knew what the findings of the report were. The HRCP team offered to share a copy of the inquiry tribunal report with members of the Christian community, but they said that they could not read the report as it was in English.
Many Christian women who had been working as housemaids said that their Muslim employers had fired them after the Gojra attacks, accusing them of ‘defiling the Quran’. However, they said that some of those women were later given their old jobs back.
Another participant, Nasir Masih, who used to work in a steel cupboard manufacturing factory, said the Muslim factory owner fired him after the Gojra incident because he was a Christian.
Bishop John Samuel of Church of Pakistan, Gojra, said the situation in the city was apparently calm. He said that some Muslims members of another local peace committee were really apologetic over the Christians’ loss of life last year, but some others consistently used a very aggressive language. He hoped that similar attacks would not occur again and added that heightened emotions and lack of efforts to verify unsubstantiated charges of defiling of the scriptures had led to the tragic events of August 1 last year.
He said that Christians were being pressured to reach a compromise with Muslims and withdraw the cases against those involved in attacks in Korianwala village and in Gojra. “The Christian community wants justice and harmony, nothing more and nothing less. We have left it to the courts to do justice,” he added.
He said that reconstruction of destroyed houses and compensation for the affected families had also provoked jealousy and criticism by some Muslims, who had made sarcastic comments saying that Christians now had better houses and that they had become more resourceful.
He cited continued abuse of blasphemy law was a serious concern and said that the mere charge exposed the accused to mortal danger.
He said that the family which lost five members in the Gojra attacks had moved to Thailand.
He said that eight houses in Korianwala village and six in Christian Colony Gojra had been partially destroyed by the mobs on July 30 and August 1, 2009, respectively. He said that the government had promised to rebuild them in the second phase of reconstruction but that had not happened so far.
He said that he had come to know that the inquiry tribunal had issued a report but he could not manage to get it.
Father Yaqoub Yousaf of Catholic Church, Gojra, apprehended more attacks against Christians if the men charged with the Gojra attacks were convicted. “Such a decision would not bring security or stability for the Christian community. The Muslim population would certainly react.”
He said that witnesses were under constant fear and pressure. He said that Christians in Pakistan were “such a weak minority that they cannot even think of committing such senseless acts as blasphemy”.
He said that Christian workers had been threatened with sacking for expressing their opinions in a peaceful manner. He gave the example of a Christian man working on the farm of a Muslim landlord in Suringiya village. The landlord threatened to fire the Christian man if he participated in protests in Gojra after the August 1 attacks last year.
1: Most of the Christians directly affected by the Gojra attacks remain ignorant about the existence or findings of the inquiry tribunal’s report.
2: Many members of the Christian community feel that the time allowed to them to record their statements was very short, and that lack of information and continued threats of violence soon after the August 1 attacks had prevented them from joining the inquiry.
3: The Christians feel that they are being pressurised to reconcile with those accused of the Gojra attacks and intimidated and warned of consequences if they do not comply.
4: Almost a year after the August 1 attacks, the trial of the accused has not yet commenced and there is no indication when it would start. Witnesses feel insecure and intimidated in the circumstances and in case of further delay in the initiation of trial and in absence of arrangements for their safety many may not want to expose themselves to danger by recording their statements in court.
5: Following the attacks, an atmosphere of inter-communal harmony has emerged to a large extent, mainly through efforts of members of both community, including traders, and a positive role played by religious leaders from both sides. Efforts by the local administration to ensure security and communal harmony in the area also seem to be yielding results.
6: The Christians generally fear that conviction of the accused might lead to a backlash for the community
7: The Punjab government has not fulfilled its promise of giving 300,000 rupees to each affected family. Only 100,000 rupees have been given to each family so far and they do not know when or if they would receive the remaining amount. The federal and Punjab governments have each given 500,000 rupees in compensation for each person killed in the Gojra attacks.
8: Peace in Gojra is largely due to the presence of a strong police contingent and the obvious realization by the Muslim community that disruption of order in the present situation will have a bad effect on the fate of those facing trial. Neither of these two factors is permanent. Ways will have to be found to secure the parties’ sincere conversion to inter-faith harmony.