Christian families in a village near Sargodha city were forced to flee their homes following accusations of blasphemy against a local Christian man. The tensions ignited when 45-year-old Haroon Shahzad shared a Bible verse from 1st Corinthians 10: 18-12 on his Facebook page.
While his post made no direct reference to the Muslim holy festival of Eid Ul Adha, a screenshot of the verse began circulating, sparking allegations of disrespect towards the religious traditions associated with the Muslim festival.
Muhammad Imran Ullah the local took a screen shot of Haroon’s Facebook post and incited the news in the conservative religious lot of the area and painted the Facebook post containing only the Biblical verse as the attempt of blasphemy by him. The social media post contained no remarks or captions by the Shahzad over the shared Biblical verse.
The police registered a case against Haroon on Friday 1st July under Sections 295-A and 298. Section 295-A relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable with imprisonment up to 10 years and fine, or both. Section 298 prescribes up to 1-year imprisonment and fine, or both, for hurting religious sentiments.
The situation escalated after Friday prayers when announcements from mosque loudspeakers incited protests. Local Christian leaders alerted the authorities, leading to a police presence that prevented immediate attacks but couldn’t prevent the mass exodus of Christian families from the village. Shahzad and his family have gone into hiding, fearing for their safety amidst the unrest. Shahzad was granted the bail but due to security reasons he is still confined in the jail.
Explaining the vulnerability of the family, Shahzad’s elder brother Amoon Shahzad termed the accusation of blasphemy against his brother as a case of personal grudge, religious discrimination and falsehood.
Revealing the details after talking to Haroon, his brother informs about the background of their conflicts, he expressed that, a day before Eid Mohammed Imran, had asked for sound speakers from Haroon for a musical function and celebration. Haroon denied to give that due to his disinterest in such activities, his denial ignited the tipsy Imran with the anger which further fueled the past animosities among the both parties and sharpened the grudge and hatred in Imran.
Contextualizing Imran grudges, he said that the Haroon Shahzad and he himself have remained vocal against the events of discrimination and exploitation against the minorities in the village. Underlining another past issue, he said that, they had also been indulged in a conflict erupted over the illegal occupation of church property in the area. The Church land was forcefully captured by the land mafia and Imran was part of it, as well. Many of Muslims have illegally constructed their homes over Christian land of Church estimated around Two Kanal(s). The land is allotted for the Church by the government. Imran and his allies mainly religious radicals opposed the construction of the Church in the area. “We stood against them and resisted them on legal grounds over the illegal occupation of the disputed land, he informed۔
Imran used the Facebook post of the Biblical verse as a pretext to fix his own personal scores with us and did this with the intention to avenge my brother, Amoon added۔
He also informed, that female members of their families were arrested while the house was attacked by the fanatic mob, who were angrily holding sticks and rods. The vandals were pumped up against us due to the loudspeaker announcements made from the area mosques, as the result of false information disseminated by the Imran against Haroon, he maintained۔
Responding to the query, Amoon said that, he along with his family were satisfied with the good response and cooperation of the police officials, despite various pressures.
Local Christian clergymen and District President of National Peace Committee on Interfaith Harmony Sargodha, Rev. Hanook Yasir explaining the situation after the incident said that, dozens of Christian families left the village as they heard the news of angry mobs marching towards them from the two of the neighboring villages. “People were scared of the violent attacks on their houses, remembering the legacy of past horrible massacres of Shanti Nagar and Gojra on them in the same situation before, he stated۔
Appreciating the positive role of the Muslim Scholars, he expressed that, delegation of the Pastors was welcomed by the delegation of the Muslim religious leaders for an immediate meeting called by the Christian leaders to control the situation. The meeting was held at Hamid Shah Masjid in Sargodha, it was chaired by the Maulvi Nagha Mustafa. In the meeting our Pastoral delegation explained the meaning and context of the verse which was shared by the Shahzad. The Muslim scholar’s delegation appreciated our clarification but said that, the time of sharing this verse was not right and it has hurt the sentiments of many, he informed۔
Further, the Muslim scholar ensured us to deescalate the situation and preferred us to keep Shahzad in protective custody for some time, this will not only lessen the temperature of the hurt people but will also keep him safe, he told۔
The Chief Executive of The Voice and Lawyer of the Haroon Shahzad Advocate Aneeqa Maria articulated that, after the bail was granted to the Haroon, he was allowed to go back to his house. But his life was still in danger in such circumstances. So, maybe his bail will be denied to keep him in the safe protective custody of the police, she stated۔
Former Member Provincial Assembly Chaudary Tahir Naveed commented on the incident that the timely intervention of the Police and law enforcement agencies played a vital role in the safety of the Christians villagers. “This couldn’t have been possible without the valuable contributions and support of the Muslim religious scholars, area elders and the patience of the Christian leadership”, he stated۔
Chaudhary, pointing at the Haroon Facebook post said that the timing of the post was not right, which has offended our Muslim brothers. He further argued that, this sharing was done due to lack of knowledge and education by the Haroon. “Though the post contained only verses and not any defamatory remarks, but it would have been better, if he had captioned the post with a explanation and context of the verse” he argued۔
In addition, he also informed that the situation has become normal in the village now and majority of the Christian families have shifted back to their homes, only the family of Shahzad and their relatives have not shifted back, due to risk to their safety.
It’s better for Haroon Shahzad to stay in protective custody until the temperature soars down at the offended people’s end.
He has already granted the bail, but we will make sure that he must record his regret and mistake he had committed in his ignorance, as we want things to become normal for him and his community living in the area, he concluded۔