Resident of the Christian district of Jaranwala in eastern Pakistan, Pastor Javed Bhatti was awakened from his sleep by the loudspeaker of the mosque which urged him to demonstrate against an alleged blasphemy committed by his community.
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Instinctively, he gathered his family and rushed to the street, where other Christians had fled to escape reprisals.
“Some were running barefoot and others were fleeing in rickshaws. It was chaos everywhere,” Javed Bhatti told AFP on Thursday, the day after the violence.
On Wednesday hundreds of people of the Muslim faith swept through the alleys of this Christian district located in the suburb of Faisalabad in Punjab.
Several churches were burned there and a Christian cemetery was vandalized. A dozen houses and shops were burned and ransacked, according to an AFP team on the spot.
The assault was sparked when a group of religious fanatics accused a family of blaspheming against the holy text of Islam. “Photos and videos of burned pages of the Koran were shared among residents, which caused an outcry,” Rana Imran Jamil, spokesperson for the city’s emergency services, said on Wednesday.
The children were shouting “run, run, the religious are coming. They will attack us,” says Javed’s sister, Naila Bhatti.
Blasphemy is a big issue in Pakistan, where vigilante groups have killed people accused of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.
Christians make up about 2% of the country’s population and are at the very bottom of the social ladder. In Jaranwala live some 5,000 of them.
As panic spread through the neighborhood, Muslims also rushed to the streets to warn and shelter their Christian neighbours.
“The crowd came from outside (the neighborhood), but the local Muslims helped us and tried to save us,” says Pastor Bhatti.
Another resident, Tariq Rasool, said Muslims were also quick to pin verses from the Koran on the doors of Christian homes in the hope of sheltering them from the violence they knew was imminent.
“I opened the door for them”
“Two women were running. I opened the door to my house for them and let them in. They were very worried, but I reassured them,” the 58-year-old Muslim told AFP.
The crowd grew in size and anger grew throughout the day, with up to several hundred people at the height of the riots.
Imran Qadri, of Muslim faith, also opened his house to two Christian women. “They are still inside our house. My family helped them, provided them with food and they spent the night with us,” he told AFP.
Parveen Bibi, she had to escape with the eight members of her family after being awakened by the cries of her young children screaming “the Muslims are coming to burn our houses”.
“We took rickshaws to visit our Muslim neighbours. The door was open and we all entered”, continues in tears Parveen who was accompanied in particular by her two daughters-in-law and her children.
“You are safe here, don’t worry,” her hosts replied, she says standing amid the rubble of her home.
Several Christians who returned to their homes on Thursday to assess the damage told AFP that more than 300 people had fled in the first hours, but that hundreds more had been evacuated overnight as well as on Thursday to take refuge in their homes. relatives in other cities.
Police have arrested more than 100 people linked to the violence and are looking for two Christian brothers accused of desecrating the Koran.
Although the violence has stopped and hundreds of police have been deployed to monitor the area, many are too scared to return home.
When Pastor Javed Bhatti returned to his neighborhood, the pain was even greater.
“My own house was destroyed. It was the income of a lifetime. Now, how are we going to settle in these houses again?” he asks in anguish.