STONSABAD, Pakistan (UCAN) — Police have arrested four people suspected of raiding a Presbyterian pastor’s house and burning a bible along with furniture, a sound system and other items.
The four Muslim suspects — Liaquat Hasaria, M. Hafiz Islam, M. Hafiz Abid, Zulfiqar — allegedly entered the house in Stonsabad village, about 370 kilometers south of Islamabad , at 2 p.m on April 4 by breaking the lock.
The pastor’s house, which also functions as a church, was set up in 2000 by Namseoul Presbyterian Church of Korea. At least 45 of the 100 Christian families living in Stonsabad are church members.
Sources say the suspects took from the house a copy of the Book of Psalms, a Christian calendar, a picture of Jesus, a bible, the sound system and some furniture and set them on fire outside the building. They also reportedly removed brass crosses and some utensils, and partially damaged the building.
The attack occurred in the absence of Pastor Saul Yousaf, who had been temporarily transferred to Multan , a major city 90 kilometers away.
Pastor Yousaf, who has been serving in Stonsabad for six years, told UCA News the attackers also burned his academic certificates and pastoral degree. He situated the “shameful incident” amid a “wave of attacks on churches” that he said “is a great conspiracy against Christian-Muslim unity” in the country.
On March 30, a group of people raided a church belonging to the Church of Pakistan in a neighboring village, Nathu Walli, and tried to burn it. The fire was extinguished after an hour of concerted effort by locals, police officials and the fire brigade. Two doors, windows, some benches and chairs were destroyed.
In other incidents this year also in Punjab province, a Presbyterian church in Sargodha was set on fire and a mob armed with rifles and iron rods attacked a Catholic church in Kawanlit. In Sindh, the province south of Punjab, a mob destroyed St. Mary’s Church of Hyderabad Catholic diocese and St. Savior’s Church of the Church of Pakistan , both in Sukkur. Last November, an allegation that a local Christian burned pages of the Qur’an sparked violence by a mob that attacked Presbyterian and Catholic churches, two chapels, a convent, a dispensary, two parish houses, a girl’s school and four Christian homes in and around Sangla Hill, Punjab. The Christian was found not guilty of blasphemy.
On April 5, one day after the attack on the church in Stonsabad, thousands of Christians from neighboring villages gathered at the site. Local political and community leaders, however, urged the crowd not to resort to violence in protesting the attack. A list of stolen items, along with those that were set on fire, was given to the police.
Pastor Yousaf told police that Rana Ghufar, an influential Muslim from the locality, might have instigated the attack. He explained that Ghufar claims he owns the land under the church and wants to sell it. Rana Ghufar is now under arrest.
Preveen Bibi, 40, one of the witnesses, helped to identify the attackers. A local politician, Samson Gulzar, led a contingent of police to where the men were hiding out, leading to their arrest on the evening of the attack. The police assured local people of their commitment to solving the case, saying that those responsible for the crime would be dealt with severely.
Shamus Khan, police station house officer, told UCA News, “I am very grateful to Christians for their cool and peaceful attitude, which shows their dignity.”
Gulzar told UCA News April 5 that the community has “complete confidence in the police department and appreciates the cooperation of local Muslims.”
Local Christian teacher William Lala told UCA News that Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan , “wanted to see Pakistan as a democratic, not a theocratic state.” But some people “are trying to create a dangerous situation and disturb the harmony among religious communities.”
Archbishop Lawrence J. Saldanha of Lahore has urged the Pakistani Christian community to “be careful” and protect their buildings. He recently told UCA News that some “misguided” people are responsible for the recent events, and Christians “should not make a big issue” out of them. “The police cannot be everywhere,” he added.
Nonetheless, he condemned the attacks and stressed that the government should try to foster greater tolerance among religions in the Muslim-majority country. He added that Christians “are also People of the Book,” a term in Islam that includes Christians and Jews as people who have received divine Scripture.
Archbishop Saldanha added that the Church is trying to form a peace committee to help foster greater interreligious tolerance in the country. His archdiocese is based in Lahore , Pakistan ‘s second-largest city and the capital of Punjab province.