Last month was the fourth anniversary of one of the worst outbreaks of violence against Pakistan's minority Christian community in the country's recent past. In August 2009, seven Christians were burned to death in Gojra, while more than 100 houses were looted, ransacked and then set on fire.
Four years on, the situation remains bleak. In July, World Watch Monitor reported that a Christian in Gojra was convicted of committing blasphemy, while a couple was arrested for sending blasphemous text messages. Another Christian was shot dead in a nearby town later that month.
In such a climate, even a relatively common occurrence, the 'elopement' of a 20-year-old Christian man and a 17-year-old Muslim woman, has resulted in a charge of gang rape, as well as the loss of livelihood for 40 Christian families. Their Muslim neighbours and landlords now refuse to hire them for daily work in their fields; a local activist says the families risk starvation.
Umair Masih, 20, eloped with his girlfriend Nadia Shabir, 17, on the evening of July 27. Both were residents of Chak (village) 375 JB, district Toba Tek Singh, about 15 kilometres from Gojra. The village consists of about 40 Christian families and 500 Muslim families.
In countries such as Pakistan where arranged marriages are still usually the norm among rural communities, young couples often leave home together, sometimes on a whim, sometimes in a determined attempt to be allowed to have their affection for each other taken seriously by their families, and sometimes as an act of desperation.
In many such elopements, local communities, and especially close family members, manage to follow and find the couple and bring them back to their families. Sometimes they are punished. It is always a scandal within the village, but the aftermath is usually confined within the family relationships of those directly involved.
Here, however, dozens of locals came out onto the road and resorted to firing guns into the air soon after they found the couple was missing. They first searched for them in the fields and then came to the houses of the Christians. The group forcibly entered their houses and told the Christians that they would take their all young women along with them to humiliate them. The mob also threatened to set their houses on fire and banish them all from the village.
The mob then decided to take along Masih's three sisters, Saba, Chanda and Mariam, and their mother Shehnaz Bibi, and to publicly humiliate them. Finally, they settled on taking Saba and Chanda along with them.
"They hit the door with the butts of their guns and forcibly entered in the house. They started beating my father and called us names," 18-year-old Saba told World Watch Monitor. Then they dragged Saba and Chanda out of the house and took them to a farmhouse.
"Dozens of men were present there. They hurled abuse at us but when some men started indecently touching us, a few of the elderly men objected to it, so they refrained from sexually assaulting us," added 16-year-old Chanda to our reporter. "We remained tied there until the next day without food and water," she said.
After the couple's elopement, relations between the Christians and the majority became tense.
The next day, a village arbitrary council (panchayyat) decided Saba and Chanda would be returned to the family, and in exchange Nadia would return to her father. The council also decided that Umair Masih would no more live in the village. Masih's father, Tufail Masih, agreed to all these conditions.
Contrary to their agreement with the council, the Muslim group then filed a writ petition in the court for the registration of a case alleging that Umair Masih and four of his family members had forcibly abducted Nadia and gang raped her. Apart from this legal action, they threatened to "spill Christians' blood" in the village to avenge the "insult" inflicted on them by Nadia's elopement.
Having in mind the history of communal strife in their area, the Christians then filed a writ petition before the Toba Tek Singh Additional Sessions judge and requested an order to the police of Saddar Police Station to register a case against the Muslim group for threatening to kill them. The judge issued an order the same day, calling the police to register a case against the group.
Since then, the police have been trying to strike a compromise deal between the Christians and the Muslim group, said Munir Masih Gill, a social activist of the village. He said that even if the legal matter was resolved, the social boycott still continued. He said almost all the Christians are poor and illiterate, and are hired by the Muslim landlords in their fields on a daily wage. They are also facing a shortage of food because of the boycott, he said.