Pakistan Supreme Court rebukes Punjab over Jaranwala attacks

By Christian Daily International / Morning Star News |
Home burned in rioting that began Aug. 16, 2023 in Christian Town, Jaranwala, Pakistan.
Home burned in rioting that began Aug. 16, 2023 in Christian Town, Jaranwala, Pakistan. | (Morning Star News)

Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Tuesday (Feb. 13) reprimanded the Punjab Province government over its progress report on anti-Christian attacks in Jaranwala, terming it “worthy of being thrown into the dustbin.”

The court ordered officials to submit a new report within 10 days.

Heading a three-judge bench hearing a suo motu case in Islamabad on the rights of minorities and the Aug. 16 attacks in Jaranwala, which left multiple churches and homes of Christians ransacked and burned after two Christians were falsely accused of desecrating the Quran, Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa said that he felt ashamed after seeing report.

“I am feeling ashamed that only 18 challans (charge sheets) were submitted in the case in the last six months” Isa said to a Punjab law officer. “We keep raising hue and cry over ‘Islamophobia’ wherever we go in the world. But what are we doing here in Pakistan? Have we ever thought about that? Do we want to follow in the footsteps of India, where minorities are not safe?”

The Punjab additional advocate general had reported that 22 cases had been registered in which 304 people were arrested, and that charge sheets had been collected in 18 of the 22 First Information Reports.

Isa noted that the report lacked relevant information such as the registration of FIRs in regard to offenses, the number of suspects named, the status of the cases, names of the relevant courts where cases were pending and the progress made so far.

“The manner in which the investigation was conducted and the apparent hesitation shown by the law enforcement agencies in identifying the culprits will only bring disrepute to the police force,” he said, adding that it appeared that the investigation agencies were not interested in punishing the culprits. “Instead, it seems that the functionaries of the state also become intimidated by the persons who take the law into their own hands, and at times, rather than protecting the life and properties of non-Muslims, advance the agenda of the perpetrators.”

Isa asked the Faisalabad Police Investigation Superintendent what action had been taken against the officers who failed to stop the rioters. The superintendent responded that an inquiry was still underway. He also conceded that the attack was led by activists of Muslim extremist political party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP).

Isa ordered the Punjab Police to conduct a thorough investigation afresh and ensure prosecution of the accused, warning that officials would be suspended if they failed to yield results. He also directed the Punjab government to submit a report on the progress of the reconstruction work on church buildings and compensation paid to victims.

Calling for collective efforts to curb the extremist mindset, Isa said incidents like the Jaranwala attacks arise out of a lack of education, misinformation, hatred and suspicion where miscreants used religion as a pretext to launch attacks on non-Muslims.

“These matters should be attended to by the society as a whole and those who help make public opinion,” Isa said. “Considerable responsibility rests on the federal and provincial governments, as well as the media, to encourage interfaith harmony and to forthrightly denounce events where non-Muslim citizens come under attack.”

The court added that all citizens deserve to be treated equally and no one should be allowed to gain political capital by sowing religious discord.

Christians Laud Justice

Church and community leaders welcomed the chief justice’s order.

“There’s some hope now of justice for the poor Christians of Jaranwala,” Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “We are glad that the chief justice of Pakistan has taken note of our concerns regarding the investigation of the incident and accountability of the negligent officials.”

Marshall had filed a petition in the Lahore High Court seeking a judicial inquiry into the incident, but the Punjab government opposed it, citing the formation of joint investigation committees as sufficient action. The petition was repeatedly adjourned on various pretexts, but at the last hearing in December, the court directed the Punjab government to reconsider its decision.

More than two months have passed since the court gave the order, but the government has yet to file its final response.

The Rev. Khalid Mukhtar, a Catholic priest who is also a petitioner in the Jaranwala cases, said that the Supreme Court’s directive to the Punjab government had reignited hope in the Christian community.

“We were disappointed by the police’s handling of the investigation, but now we feel that the Punjab government will give due attention to the cases,” Mukhtar said.

Rights activist Samuel Makson said that the Supreme Court’s intervention had breathed life into dying cases.

“I’m glad that the Supreme Court admitted my plea for early hearing of the suo motu notice, otherwise the damage caused to the Jaranwala cases would have been irreparable,” he said.

Makson filed a fresh application in the Supreme Court on Feb. 7 after the court took no action on his earlier petition filed on Dec. 8. His latest petition had pointed to grant of bail to a majority of detained suspects due to defective police investigation.

It also complained of the lax attitude of the Punjab government with regard to its promise of reconstructing the damaged churches and homes of Christians, as well as payment of compensation to some victims.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.