Christian protects Muslim woman accused of blasphemy in Pakistan

Police escort threatened woman out of cafe in Lahore, Pakistan on Feb. 26, 2024.
Police escort threatened woman out of cafe in Lahore, Pakistan on Feb. 26, 2024. | (screenshot Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

A Christian owner of a café in Pakistan has garnered praise for protecting a Muslim woman from an angry mob that accused her of blasphemy for wearing a dress that they mistakenly believed bore verses of the Quran.

In Lahore’s bustling Ichhra Bazaar market, the woman, whose identity was not revealed for security reasons, was reportedly strolling through shops with her husband on Feb. 26. Noticing the Arabic calligraphy on her dress, a Muslim reportedly began following the couple, eventually intercepting the woman near a café and demanding she change her dress.

When she questioned his mistaken accusation that the Arabic calligraphy included verses of the Quran, the Muslim reportedly attempted to strip off her dress. She began screaming, and he retaliated by accusing her of committing blasphemy, as passersby and other shopkeepers looked on, the café owner said.

Soon 400 to 600 people besieged the couple, some brandishing knives while one reportedly brought out a loaded gun. The mob shouted provocative slogans like, “Gustakh-e-Rasool Ki Aik Hi Saza, Sarr Tann Se Judda,” or “The only punishment for blasphemy is to behead the blasphemer,” the owner said.

Seeing the commotion, the Christian owner of the café, 33-year-old Johnson Tariq, stepped outside to secure the panicked couple from the unruly mob. Aided by two Muslim employees, Tariq confronted the protestors, led the beleaguered couple into his café, lowered the metal, roll-down gate and locked the door, he said.

The mob threatened to set the shop on fire if Tariq refused to open the gate and hand the woman over to them, he said.

“I believe it was my Christian faith that gave me the courage to hold my ground,” Tariq told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “I was determined not to let them harm the couple, particularly the woman, who was completely petrified by them.”

Before police arrived, he said, local clerics also came and attempted to control the mob.

“We could hear them appealing to the mob not to take the law into their own hands,” Tariq said. “Thankfully, the police arrived in time and asked me to let them into my shop. I opened the shutter for them, and some policemen came inside while some stood guard outside. After some minutes, a female police officer reached there and rescued the woman from the frenzied mob.”

Father of a 1-year-old daughter, Tariq has been running the café in the busy market for more than two years. Though it is uncommon for Christians to run food businesses in Pakistan as Muslims tend to avoid them, Tariq said the café has been quite successful.

“My elder brother also runs a food joint near my café, and the entire market knows we are Christian – we have never hidden our Christian faith from anyone,” he said. “Though some people do show religious prejudice, no one has bothered our business yet.”

Initially his efforts went unnoticed, with mainstream media focusing all attention on the female police officer, Assistant Superintendent of Police Gulberg Circle Syeda Shehrbano Naqvi. Only after social media users pointed out Tariq’s faith did people take to social media to acknowledge his role.

“I was surprised when some acquaintances showed me my photograph in the newspaper,” Tariq told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “Many YouTubers are now coming to my café to make videos, but I prefer to keep a low profile. Such publicity can be detrimental to my business.”

Several Islamic leaders lauded him on social media, including leading progressive scholar Engineer Muhammad Ali Mirza. In a video released on Sunday (March 3), Mirza said, “The real hero of the Ichhra incident is the Christian café owner who shielded the victim and her husband from the volatile mob who were baying for their blood. The man was the woman’s only defender till the time police arrived on the scene, otherwise God knows what would have happened to her. The government must act against people who incite others to violence in the name of religion.”

Some Christians expressed fears for Tariq’s security, saying the attention could endanger his business.

“Our Christian brother did the right thing by saving the woman, but now his photographs are being shared on social media, which may cause trouble for him,” social activist Riaz Aasi told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “Christians should exercise caution for the sake of his security.”