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Mob wreaks havoc in Sangla Hill, Pakistan

29 November 2005 printable version

by Yaqoob Khan Bangash


The 12 November 2005 was truly a day when the earth shook in Sangla Hill. On that ominous day, three churches, two houses of priests, one convent, one high school and the houses of three Christian families were set alight by a charged Muslim mob of around 2500 people which spared little in all of these places. Under threat from the mob were the lives of the local parish priest, seven nuns, 24 children of the convent and a catechist and his family. Miraculously, the throng was not able to locate or break into the tiny room these people were sheltering in or a huge catastrophe would have been in the offing. A week later, still, one can see charred buildings, bewildered people and a lot of insecurity in the Christian population of Sangla Hill, whose main concern is now only a sense of security, something which the local administration completely failed to deliver.

The tehsil of Sangla Hill is situated in the newly created district of Nankana Sahib and lies 130 km from the provincial capital of Lahore. The area has a population of 150,000 with around 12,000 of the population being Christian. Among the Christians, the Catholic component comprises the overwhelming majority, while the rest belongs to various Protestant denominations.

The events of 12 November in Sangla Hill took place because of an alleged desecration of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, by an illiterate Christian man by the name of Yousaf Masih. Talking with Yousaf’s brother, Benedict Masih, the whole story of the incident was recounted as below:

Yousaf Masih had a very bad habit of indulging in gambling with locals and would often play with a number of his friends, both Christian and Muslim, in the nearby parks. On 11 November he was, as was his custom, gambling with his friends Lazar Masih and Kalu Suniyara in the Company Bagh and in the course of the game won 2,000 rupees and 4,000 rupees from each respectively. After some time, Yousaf wanted to just get his money and walk away, but Kalu insisted that he play more. So after another round of gambling Yousaf finally decided to leave, but not without quarrel with Kalu over the money. Yousaf would have only walked a couple of minutes when in the midst of the main bazaar of the town, Kalu confronted him and accused him of setting fire to the Qur’an Mahal (which is used to house discarded papers and texts with verses of the Qur’an written on them) which was adjacent to the Company Bagh where they were gambling. As it was a main thoroughfare, many people soon gathered around to watch Kalu quarrel with Yousaf over the alleged desecration. In reply, Yousaf swore that he had not done any such thing and that Kalu was unnecessarily trying to implicate him in a crime that could potentially carry serious consequences.

After a few minutes arguing with the gathered people, Yousaf was able to convince them that he could not, under any circumstances, commit such a crime and so was able to leave with the assurance that everything had been settled. Then after going back to his house he shortly left for Manawala, to the house of his relatives, as he had to go to the main marketplace in Sheikhupura in the morning for work.

Back in Sangla Hill, Kalu was not prepared to see the issue subside and soon after he again raised a hue and cry in the main marketplace, attracting a lot of people who then all went to the police station and launched an FIR (First Information Report) number 148/05 against Yousaf Masih for desecrating the Qur’an Mahal. It is to be noted here that under the amended procedural laws of Section 295-B no ordinary police officer except the District Police Officer can register a case of blasphemy for either the Muslim Holy Prophet or the Qur’an. However, this procedural rule was simply ignored and a case registered against Yousaf Masih.

As a result of the FIR, the police, together with a person named Zulfiqar and Kalu, raided Yousaf’s house. Without showing any warrant or charges the police entered the house and harassed Yousaf’s family. They also woke up his younger brother, Salim, and took him with them without any explanation.

Thereafter, people started to hear announcements from nearly every mosque loudspeaker informing every Muslim that a Christian had desecrated the Qur’an and that because of that Christian houses should be burnt and every visible Christian should be killed. Local leaders also approached many Christian houses, especially those of Yousaf’s relatives, asking them to leave the area before things got worse. As a result, almost 400 Christian families in Sangla Hill left for safe places.

In the meantime, Yousaf’s brothers contacted the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) and the Station House Officer (SHO) concerning the incident. Both of them told his brothers that nothing will happen to them or the other Christians of the area if Yousaf surrendered. Then Yousaf’s brother Humayun offered to take the police with him to places where he thought Yousaf might have gone, as it was unknown to him that he had gone to Manawala. But after a few failed attempts of locating Yousaf, the SHO Malik Ashraf started to torture Humayun and Salim, Yousafs’ brothers, relentlessly.

After finding out that Yousaf had gone to the market in Sheikhupura, his brothers went there early in the morning and confronted him about the whole incident. According to his brother, Benedict, Yousaf was flabbergasted that the incident had taken such an extreme form and said that he had thought that it had ended when Kalu had confronted him in the main marketplace and everything had been cleared up. However, he agreed to go back and surrender himself to the police so that his statement could be taken. Therefore, from the Sheikhupura market his brothers called up Haroon Fateh Jang and Sultan, both Advocates, who in turn called the SHO to inform him that Yousaf was ready to surrender and also told the SHO of his exact whereabouts. Benedict recounted that Yousaf himself identified himself when the police car came and handed himself over. Benedict also discounts the rumour that Yousaf had run away, saying that Haroon Fateh Jang even called the SHO after the surrender to reconfirm that Yousaf was in police custody.

Afterwards Benedict called up his home in Sangla Hill, and heard what had happened that morning relating to the mob action on Christian sites. Then he said he called up the Parish Priest Fr. Samson Dilawar who asked him to come back immediately, which he did.

The events of Sangla Hill are an eye-opener, not only for the Christian community of Pakistan, but also for the world at large. It exhibits the high degree of intolerance and fanaticism present in this small backwaters town of Pakistan, focused against a community that had spent most of its energy serving the local Muslim majority community, especially in the field of education. This incident speaks volumes of the mindset of the local people, who after years, even decades, of living side by side with Christians turned on them in an instant and destroyed their whole lives.

The vile attacks of Sangla Hill also exhibit the complicity of the local administration and police in the whole scenario. Not only did the local City Mayor, Malik Mohammad Azim, lead the mob to the churches, he and others in the local government were also the main instigators of the crime. Also, the local police completely failed to safeguard the life and property of the Christian churches in Sangla Hill even after repeated assurances to the contrary. The suspension of the DPO and SHO of the area by the Chief Minister are a testament of their inefficiency and lack of concern for the Christian community.

With only 88 of the thousands of perpetrators held, and with many instigators still out in the open, and with the churches still in ruins, the Christians of Sangla Hill are still awaiting justice and equity to be delivered to them.

- Statement of Fr Samson Dilawar, Parish Priest, Holy Spirit Church Sangla Hill
- Testimony of Sr Nasreen Emmanuel FTL, in charge of the student hostel
- Statement of Sr Bernarda, in charge of the Convent, regarding the destruction of the convent
- Statement of Sr Anthony FTL, Principal St. Anthony’s High School
- Events at Tariqabad Colony
- Torching of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan church and pastor’s house

Statement of Fr Samson Dilawar, Parish Priest, Holy Spirit Church Sangla Hill:

The parish of Sangla Hill was erected in 1914, out of the Mariamabad parish territory. Even in 1937, there were around 4,000 Catholics in the parish, which has now increased to around 1,800 families. The parish comprises of 183 villages, many of which have small chapels, while the main parish church of the Holy Spirit was constructed and blessed in April 1951. The church was then reconstructed and expanded in 1992 to cater to the growing Catholic population of the area. The parish team comprises of Fr. Samson Dilawar and six catechists.

Fr Samson, who had been appointed the parish priest around six months ago, stated that the Christian-Muslim relations in the Sangla Hill area before the incident were mostly cordial. He said that there were no major rifts between the two communities and the inter-faith relationship was more or less harmonious. However, he did mention that on 9 May 2005 in the village of Sathiali Kalan, some 20 kilometres from the parish house, a group of Muslims did set a small chapel on fire. This, he said was due to local enmities between the Muslims and the Christians but it did not spread further. Still he noticed that the government did not help the Christians in this case and very unjustifiably arrested five Christians, but no Muslim involved in the attack on the chapel. Even now, he lamented, those five are still languishing in jail without any trial.

In the evening on 11 November the sisters from the convent adjoining the parish house called Fr Samson on his mobile phone as he was on his way back to Sangla Hill from Lahore, asking him not to return as there were some protests in the area against Christians. Despite the call, Fr Samson, eager to get to know the real reasons behind the unrest, returned to his parish house around 6 p.m.

When he came back he became aware that some locals had accused Yousaf Masih, a parishioner, of setting fire to some old copies of the Qur’an and that the whole protest was aimed at Yousaf. Fr Samson then also heard an announcement from a nearby mosque asking people to gather in the mosque to discuss the desecration of the Qur’an. Soon after the announcement a mob of hundreds of Muslims approached the main gate of the church raising slogans against Christians. But apparently someone stopped the crowd and they went back. Immediately, Fr Samson called up the police SHO and the Christian MNA Akram Gill, who in turn called the District Police Officer, to apprise them of the developing situation. All authorities assured him that nothing will happen to him or the church, and that he should rest assured that the authorities will handle the situation. He appealed time and again for police security for the church, convent and school, but the pleas fell on deaf ears.

Nothing again happened the night of Friday, 11 November but as soon as the day broke on 12 November 2005, Fr Samson said that he heard the same announcements from the mosque asking people to gather for discussion. This time however, he noticed, Mohammad Azim, the City Nazim mayor was leading the crowd. Shortly thereafter, he said with tears in his eyes, a mob of around 2,500 people holding sticks, stones, big hammers and bottles of chemicals attacked the church compound. They were raising cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Isaay kutte haay haay’ (Down with the Christian dogs). He said that as soon as he saw the crowd break the front door he, together with his driver and catechist, ran to the adjacent convent where he asked the nuns to gather all the hostel children as soon as possible. He then locked all of them in a secure room on the first floor and himself went on the roof top to observe.

His eyewitness account of the arson is telling of the planning and coordination of the attack. He said that it seemed that the crowd had been divided into groups with the first one immediately attacking the church, while the other one focused on the parish house and a third attacked the school and hostel from the other side. The mob completely destroyed all the furnishings of the church, broke all its stained glass windows and doors, desecrated the Tabernacle and took away the chalice and ciborium. They also set fire to the Bible inside the church and burnt the Altar cloth. The treatment meted out to the parish house was even worse, as the mob, after destroying almost everything inside the house, set it ablaze with the help of special chemicals they had brought with themselves. Fr Samson said that he is very sure that these people were well trained in arson as the chemicals used were not readily available over-the-counter and their use was not very easy. Inside the parish house, the mob not only destroyed all the furniture, but also burnt old records of the church mission which dated back to 1911, together with Fr Samson’s laptop computer and basically everything he owned. Fr Samson also noticed that the crowd did see him on the roof top, but did not respond to it.

As soon as the mob torched the parish house they then, according to Fr Samson, moved towards the convent, while a section went towards St Anthony’s High School. At this juncture, Fr Samson went downstairs and also locked himself in with the nuns and hostel children. Soon noise of the mob breaking and burning the convent’s possessions reached his ears, with the ever increasing fear that the mob might find them and then unleash some other form of terror. This fear was soon realised when some people tried to break the door of the room in which Fr Samson, the nuns, and the hostel children were hiding. Fortunately, the door turned out to be quite strong and the attackers left without getting it open.

After all the attackers had left, Fr Samson said that they only left the room when the police arrived to rescue them. But by that time the whole parish house was in flames, the church and school had been destroyed and the convent had been severely damaged. In this scenario, Fr Samson insisted that the nuns and hostel children be escorted by the police to Mariamabad Parish, some 12 kilometres away, for safety while he would remain behind to assess the situation.

Since the incident, Fr Samson has been trying to salvage whatever he can from the ruins of his once thriving parish compound. He is also very disappointed with the local administration which not only turned a deaf ear to his appeals well before the incident, but which were, according to him, also complicit in the attack. He categorically also denounced the attitude of the local police, which not only failed to come to their rescue, but which did not even adequately help him in the immediate aftermath of the arson attack.

Testimony of Sr Nasreen Emmanuel FTL, in charge of the student hostel

According to Sr Nasreen, on the eve of the arson incident there were around 24 students in the hostel, 21 girls and three boys, out of a total hostel strength of 58. She said that she became apprised of the situation when a crowd approached the parish compound door around 9 p.m. on 11 November, chanting cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is great) and ‘Isaay Kutte’ (Christians are dogs). She said that she was very perplexed by the crowd and was only a little relieved when they left shortly thereafter. Then around 11 p.m. Fr Samson called her and advised her to move to the convent with the children as an alleged desecration of the Qur’an had taken place in the area and as such they should be careful about their safety.

On the morning of Saturday 12 November, as Sr Nasreen was having breakfast with the other nuns and children, she again heard cries of anti-Christian slogans from near the parish compound. She was alarmed when she saw some of the people break the main door and enter the church area. Lots of people in the crowd were, according to her, carrying long sticks, hammers, stones and chemicals. She also noted that the mob was sub-divided into three groups with one attacking the church, the other the parish house, while the third one attacked the hostel and school from the other side by breaking a wall.

Terrified for the safety of the children Sr Nasreen, together with other nuns and the catechist, then hid in a room on the first floor of the convent. She said that she could hear window glasses breaking, doors being broken down, and could smell the burning of cloth. Soon she noted people were also trying to break the door of the room in which they were hiding, which petrified the nuns and children. Miraculously, the door did not break and the mob left after ransacking and destroying most of the convent.

After the mob had left, according to Sr Nasreen, some man, who a few recognised as the father of children attending St Anthony’s School, brought the police to the room where she and the others had hid. After confirming their identity she opened the door, but was alarmed and a bit confused when the person who had come with the police said to her that, ‘think of this as something like what happened in Kashmir.’ She said that she was quite puzzled at even the attitude of the person who came to rescue them, as even he did not seem to really sympathise with the nuns or the children. Also, only around five police constables, and no high official, had come to their rescue after the incident. Then finally when a good contingent of the police came, she took all the children with a few other nuns and left for the relative safety of Mariamabad under police escort. She also noted that the previous night the surrounding settlements were also cleared of Christians by intimidation so that they could not come to help the nuns.

The damage inflicted on the hostel building was also immense, as estimated by Sr Nasreen. Nearly all the furniture of the hostel, beds, quilts, sheets, clothes of the students, tables and chairs were either broken or set on fire. Numerous windows and doors were also broken, and more than two tons of wheat which had been collected by the nuns in a hostel room for use in the kitchen was also set on fire.

Statement of Sr Bernarda, in charge of the Convent, regarding the destruction of the convent:

Sr Bernarda said that the mob also caused a lot of destruction in the convent, though luckily the convent was spared from being set ablaze, for that not only would have destroyed the whole structure but would have also threatened the lives of the seven nuns, 24 hostel children, three teachers, a catechist, a driver and Fr Samson who had been taking refuge in a room on the first floor.

According to Sr Bernarda, the chapel of the convent seemed to be the main target of the mob after they entered after breaking a couple of the side windows through which a few people came in and then opened the main doors. In the chapel, the Altar and Tabernacle were destroyed. The statute of St Francis of Assisi was completely destroyed, while that of Our Lady was disfigured. The cross of the chapel was also twisted and the chalice and ciborium were taken away.

The attackers also ransacked the room where the nuns used to keep priestly vestments and Altar cloths, taking them outside and burning them. They also entered a few other rooms on the ground floor and took out as much of the furniture as they could and set ablaze, she noted.

Statement of Sr Anthony FTL, Principal St. Anthony’s High School

St Anthony’s High School Sangla Hill, one of the pre-eminent institutions of the district was established with an Urdu-medium elementary school in 1954 by Fr Vincent Evens OFM Cap. The school is now English-medium up till the elementary section, and Urdu-medium in the higher sections. In 1964 the school, which was opened as St Paul’s Elementary School, was upgraded to a high school and the first matric class graduated in 1969. The school is coeducational in the elementary section but girls only in the higher sections. Over the years, more than a thousand girls have graduated from the school with many of its former students rising to high places in different fields. Currently there are a total of 415 students in the school, a majority of them being Muslim.

Sr Anthony had been principal of this school for the last nine years and had devoted long hours of work and effort for the betterment of the local community, with most of the beneficiaries being Muslim. She said that very recently a number of the school’s classrooms had been reconstructed and that the science lab too had just been restocked with materials costing over 525,000 rupees.

With a shaking voice the bereaved principal said that she was shocked and broken when she saw the destruction the mob had perpetrated on the morning of 12 November. She said that on the eve of 11 November, she did not hear about the incident involving Yousaf Masih and the desecration of the Qur’an until the crowd gathered in front of the main gate around 9 p.m. Then, she said, Fr Samson called around 11 p.m. and advised her to be very vigilant during the night and take extra care in the morning. In the morning, she noted, when she went to the school no one had come to school and it held a deserted look. It was only later that she got to know that there had been announcements from mosque loudspeakers that children should not go to school in the morning. This she took as clear signs of a pre-planned attack.

Loud anti-Christian slogans again terrified Sr Anthony at around 10:30 a.m. when she could again hear a mob coming towards the parish main gate. Soon Fr Samson arrived and asked them to evacuate to the first floor where he locked them inside a safe room. Then, she said, they just stayed put whilst all the time praying, till the perpetrators left around an hour and a half later.

According to her, the mob did not leave anything whole in the school. If they could not burn the things with the chemicals they had brought, they mutilated them beyond recognition. Almost all chairs, benches, and fans in the classes were burnt. All the office record was also destroyed, and the main hall was also set on fire. The mob had also broken the school door and had lit up a bonfire of school materials in the main play ground — not even the ceiling fans were spared. She also noted that in destroying the textbooks in the school, the attackers did not even spare their own religious books as several copies of Islamiat textbooks were still lying on the ground burnt to ashes by people of the same religion.

The dreadful incident has completely broken Sr Anthony. However, she says that she will not give up and resolves to resurrect the school from the ashes as soon as possible.

Events at Tariqabad Colony

Tariqabad Colony, commonly called ‘Machhar’ colony, is only a couple of kilometres away from the parish church of the Holy Spirit. Around 50 Christian families reside in the vicinity of the colony including that of Yousaf Masih. According to Miss Zulfiqar, who is a local Christian resident, on the eve of 11 November, there were announcements from the local mosque, Jamaat Ali Mansuri, calling all Muslims to come out and protest the alleged desecration of the Qur’an. She said that almost immediately all the men of the area, which is mostly inhabited by the caste of Balochs gathered and took out a procession against the Christians. They were calling for the killing of all Christians, the burning of their houses and for them to be kicked out of the area, she said. A women procession abusing and throwing stones at the Christian residents soon followed the men’s procession.

Miss Zulfiqar recalled that on the morning of 12 November, a mob around 3,000 strong, composed mostly of locals, but also including lots of outsiders, attacked the Christians of the area. She said that the previous night almost all of the Christian residents of Tariqabad had left for fear of retaliation and only her household and a few others stayed behind. She said that as soon as she heard the chanting of anti-Christian slogans by the mob she climbed to her roof to see what was happening.

What she saw sent a cold shiver down her spine, as she could see the mob move towards the local small chapel which was very near her house. The chapel had been there for almost 10 years and had served the needs of the local Catholic community well, together with being a source of pride for the local Christians as it was erected completely with their own resources. She said that a crowd armed with sticks, hammers and chemicals attacked the chapel breaking down all of its walls as well as most of its main structure. She noted that the mob destroyed the chapel’s fans, sound speakers, and furnishings. They also took away the collection box and set the Altar cloth on fire together with desecrating and burning the Holy Bible. Very revealing was the fact that when the mob ran out of the chemical they were using for igniting the fire, the neighbour, Shabbir Jat gave them kerosene oil and wood to burn the chapel. Shabbir Jat has still not been arrested and continues to live in his house. Another local resident, Nudiya Hafeez, said that she heard some people in the mob also insult Jesus Christ. She said that they were saying ‘Where is your Risen Jesus? Why doesn’t he come to help you? He should come and save you now, if he is alive!’ Miss Zulfiqar also noted that the crowd, which was under the leadership of her Baloch neighbours, wanted to next target her house. However, the police finally did appear on the scene and chased the remaining people away.

Yousaf Masih’s house was also set ablaze using sulphuric acid, a very corrosive chemical, with all his belongings inside. The fire was so strong that even the iron linters have been destroyed. Almost all the walls of the house have also been demolished and it really now looks like an old ruin. According to Yousaf’s brother, Benedict, Yousaf’s wife and four children, two girls and two boys are still unaccounted for. Benedict hopes that they also fled the night before, but at the moment nothing is known about their whereabouts.

Maqsood and Shamim’s house was also torched. They had recently just moved to Okara on account of Maqsood’s work in the army. Shamim said that she heard from friends what had happened, but by the time she returned her house was completely in ruins. As her house was right next to Yousaf’s house it too bore the brunt of the carnage, with almost nothing left. Both Maqsood and Shamim are now lamenting the loss of everything they had.

Nadeem Sohail’s house was also torched during the events of 12 November. Nadeem who has married recently, lost among other valuables around Rs. 170,000 in cash and around 45 grams of gold jewellery. He also recounted that the night before, Friday, 11 November, even the police had advised them to leave the area as they could not guarantee their security. As a result, Nadeem and his whole extended family left as they were during the night for the house of a nearby relative.

Torching of the Presbyterian Church of Pakistan church and pastor’s house

The Presbyterian Church had been working in the Sangla Hill area since 1892 and the current church had been expanded and reconstructed around 20 years ago. About 80 families worshipped in this church, which was very near the centre of the town.

According to the local pastor, Rev. Tajammal Pervaiz, he too heard the announcements from the local mosques and then called the SHO for protection, which the SHO promised to give. However, around 9 p.m. a procession of thousands of people came to the church chanting anti-Christian slogans and throwing stones on the church. This event vexed the pastor who again called up the local SHO and informed him of the situation. But the SHO reassured the pastor that everything was in control and then only sent four policemen at around 11 p.m., armed with sticks only, to protect the church.

On the morning of 12 November, Advocate Haroon Fateh Jang called up Rev. Tajammal around 9 a.m. and told him that a huge mob was going to attack his church and house imminently. Without thinking any further Rev. Tajammal picked up his mother, wife and four children and left the house at 9:30 a.m. amidst people thronging to mosques to plan for the attack. Then around 10 a.m. a 3,000-strong mob came and completely gutted the church as well as the pastor house, while the police constables fled the scene.

The damage to the Presbyterian Church has been immense. The whole church structure was set on fire with chemicals, so that nothing could be spared inside the church. All the 200 sacred copies of the Bible, 150 copies of religious hymn and psalm books, the Holy Communion chalices, the cross, two pulpits, a number of carpets, and around 20 benches were desecrated and burnt. Nothing remains in the church which now just boasts an empty charred building. Most of the pastor house walls were also broken, and then it too was set on fire using chemicals. Rev. Tajammal reported that he had lost around Rs. 80,000 of personal funds as well as Rs. 13,000 of church funds, together with nearly 60 grams of gold jewellery belonging to his wife. He also lost a personal library collection, with lots of old religious books plus all the church records, which dated back more than a century. Basically his whole house — drawing room, bedrooms, closets — everything was destroyed in the fire. He only had enough time to flee with his family with only the clothes on his back.

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