(New York) – A mob attack on a Christian settlement in Pakistan highlights the need for the authorities to take immediate action to protect religious minorities from violence, Human Rights Watch said today. Federal and provincial governments in Pakistan have an obligation to investigate and appropriately prosecute all those responsible for intimidation, threats, and violent acts against religious minorities.
On August 16, 2023, several hundred people attacked a Christian settlement in Faisalabad district, Punjab province, after two members of the community were accused of committing “blasphemy.” The mob, armed with stones and sticks, vandalized several churches, dozens of houses, and a cemetery. While the police have arrested 130 people alleged to have been involved in the attacks, residents told local rights activists that hours before the attack, the police warned them a mob was coming but claimed they could do nothing to stop it. On August 16, after the attack, Interim Prime Minister Anwaarul Haq Kakar posted on Twitter that, “Stern action would be taken against those who violate the law and target minorities.”
“The Faisalabad attack underscores the failings of Pakistan’s police to adequately protect religious minority communities and respond promptly to violence targeting them,” said Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The lack of prosecutions of those responsible for such crimes in the past emboldens those who commit violence in the name of religion.”
In recent months there has been an increase in attacks on religious minorities in Pakistan and their places of worship. The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community is embedded in Pakistani law and encouraged by the Pakistan government. On July 25, a mob vandalized an Ahmadiyya place of worship in Karachi, in Sindh province. On August 18, a mob attacked a factory owned by an Ahmadi in Lahore, accusing him of blasphemy. Instead of prosecuting the attackers, the authorities charged eight members of Ahmadi community with blasphemy.
In Pakistan, mere accusations of blasphemy can put those targeted at risk of physical harm. Since 1990, at least 65 people have reportedly been killed in Pakistan over claims of blasphemy. In March 2013, police stood by while a crowd of a thousand people instigated by the blasphemy allegations against a Christian man attacked the residential community of Joseph’s Colony in Lahore, Punjab. The mob looted and then burned down more than 150 houses as the police stood by without intervening. In August 2009, a mob set on fire a Christian hamlet in Gojra, Punjab, killing seven people. The Punjab provincial government has failed to bring any of the attackers to justice.
Section 295-C of Pakistan’s penal code, known as the blasphemy law, carries what is effectively a mandatory death sentence. The Center for Social Justice, a Pakistani advocacy group, has reported that at least 1,472 people were charged under the blasphemy provisions from 1987 to 2016. Although there have been no executions, several people convicted of blasphemy are currently on death row, while many others are serving life sentences for related offenses.
Pakistan’s blasphemy law is largely used against members of religious minorities, while the authorities rarely bring charges against those responsible for attacks on people accused of blasphemy. The law is also often manipulated to settle personal disputes. In 2014, the Pakistan Supreme Court said: “The majority of blasphemy cases are based on false accusations stemming from property issues or other personal or family vendettas rather than genuine instances of blasphemy and they inevitably lead to mob violence against the entire community.”
Concerned governments and intergovernmental bodies should press the Pakistani government to reform or repeal laws that discriminate against religious minorities, including the blasphemy law, Human Rights Watch said.
Pakistani blasphemy and anti-Ahmadiyya laws violate Pakistan’s international legal obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the rights to freedom of conscience, religion, expression, and association, and to profess and practice one’s own religion. Pakistan ratified the covenant in 2010.
“The Pakistan government’s indifference to the abuses under the blasphemy law and the violence it provokes is discriminatory and violates the rights to fundamental freedoms,” Gossman said. “The authorities’ failure to hold those responsible for violence against religious minorities to account only encourages extremists and reinforces fear and insecurity among all religious minorities.”