Pakistan: Lessons must be learned from Joseph Colony attack

Barnabas Fund is hoping the destruction of a Christian neighbourhood in Pakistan earlier this month will be a "catalyst for change".

Joseph Colony in Lahore was devastated when a mob of Muslims went on the rampage, with over 170 homes being torched.

Pakistani Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry has said the attack could have been avoided if lessons had been learnt from a similar attack on the largely Christian town of Gojra in 2009.

Barnabas Fund said there were "signs of hope" in the way the authorities responded to the latest attack, with the Punjab government setting up emergency shelters and quickly starting repair work on damaged houses.

So far, 60 homes and two churches have already been restored and compensation has been paid to families.

The organisation welcomed the apology from Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif and assurances that the perpetrators would be brought to justice.

Barnabas reports that scores have been arrested and complaints have been lodged by the police against 83 named suspects.

However Barnabas was cautious in its praise in light of the forthcoming election.

"This response by the authorities has been uncharacteristically positive for an attack on a Christian community," it said.

"But with a general election pending in the next two months, it has been suggested that the motives of the governing party in Punjab, the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League), may not be altogether altruistic.

"Before the Joseph Colony attack, the PML-N was riding high in the opinion polls, but severe criticism of the authorities over the incident has threatened their position.

"Their response may therefore have more to do with pre-election posturing than concern for justice for the Christian minority. It remains to be seen whether their care will outlast the election campaign."

Although there has been sympathy voiced for the Christians targeted by the attack, Barnabas said Christians who staged or attempted to organise peaceful protests against the violence received threats   or were themselves attacked.

Christian protesters in Youhanabad and Kot Lakhpat were reportedly beaten by the police, while elsewhere a pastor in a village in Sialkot was beaten by radicals after arranging a protest rally.  He was warned that anyone organising further protests would be killed.

"Hostility towards Christians is never far from the surface in Pakistan, and an unsubstantiated accusation of blasphemy can be all it takes for violence to flare," Barnabas Fund said.

Noting some accounts stating that the police stood aside and watched as Joseph Colony was burned to the ground, Barnabas Fund said the attack and others like it demonstrate a "cycle of failure" by the authorities to put a stop to violence against Christians.  

A Barnabas Fund contact in Pakistan said: "I don't think that such incidents will stop happening, as the government has hinted at neither making changes to the blasphemy laws nor taking steps to change the majority community's attitude towards Christians and other non-Muslims.

"The government response does not indicate any intention to remove the root causes behind such violent attacks against Christians in Pakistan.

"It has been encouraging to hear how the authorities have swooped in to help the Christians of Joseph Colony after the attack against them. They must now work on preventative measures so that such devastating incidents are consigned to the past."

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