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May The Ashes From Shanti Nagar Keep Haunting Our Collective Conscience

Dr Joshua Lohra writes about the horrific 1997 incident of Shanti Nagar, a predominantly Christian village near Khanewal city of Punjab, that was burned to the ground by a violent mob.

Ticking of the clock heralded: a new day was about to begin. A thin distance kept the schooners of light from harboring across the dark rims of night’s shore. Students in Saint Joseph Hostel were sleeping peacefully, and the church building with its magnificent history and pompous dignity stood joyously to welcome the morning mass.

The church compound had bathed in the enchanting fragrance of roses and flowers while a dewy wind of the morning was roving flawlessly.

A sudden disturbance spread across the night’s silent horizon and filled the village’s surrounding space with a shrill noise. While creeping near the village, this distant voice had unfolded itself into a roaring slogan. A violent mob of hundreds with clubs and explosives was marching towards the village.

They invaded the village in dark and started vandalising the church. In no time, flames with dense smokes rose high and the church was laying under the debris of its elevated majesty. This ill-fated place was a Christian village, Shanti Nagar. The fire had gulped the building of the church when the rioters left, but human craving for destruction cannot be quenched so easily. They were yet to unleash more violence.

They decided to return and finish the unfinished task. The men came refreshed, refueled and charged with hatred and a will to annihilate Christians of the area. The day had already broken when they returned. This time the mob was bigger.

Police force, armed with clubs, had reached the site to control the situation and save the village from the mob, but this deficient police force did not succeed in countering the mob. So to save themselves from the approaching wrath, they did nothing. The attack was skillfully planned.

The church building was set on fire once again. Houses, the school and hostel were also vandalised. They plundered whatever they found. To save their lives, students and workers jumped off the hostel building.

After wreaking havoc, another town in the city was also brought to ashes. The village Shanti Nagar was thoroughly ruined. The attackers had among them terrorists trained by extremist groups. They carried special chemicals which could produce heat at immense degrees to melt iron bars-supporting roofs. The task was to be accomplished faster because the list of the impending targets was long. Chak No 10R-31 was next on target, where the goon Imdad Khan and followers had planned to attack Christians. This attack was intercepted by the army which arrived in time, and curfew was imposed to ensure the situation remains calm.

Army officials met with a retired army soldier who was chief of the village at the time. The chief was promised protection and Imdad Khan Niazi was condemned for his evil designs against Christians. The danger was thwarted temporarily. But the ideology of hatred has kept the conflict alive in hearts.

A sense of fear constantly loomed in the villages and the lives of the Christians there. The victims of this assault believed that justice would be delivered, but it remained a hope – devoid of any spirit. They approached the court, but no culprit was punished. This indifferent approach of the judicial system towards the plight of the poor minorities proved to be an eye opener for the disillusioned Christians.

It made them realise the fragility of their situation and how helpless they were. It made them know that their safety rests on the whims of an errant majority, whose guiding force is a twisted version of their religion which would be invoked any time to legitimise their lunacy.

The culprits of dire crimes were released and victims were left on condolences and false hopes of justice. It didn’t stop here, as dozen of the incidences of mob justice took place after that incident.

One of these incidents is the riots in Gojra – where not only the homes but inhabitants were also burnt alive. No example of justice could ever be set, no culprit was ever punished. Mutilation of Christian villages and their worshiping places became a norm instead. News was tossed towards the petrified Christians of Chak 10R-31, a village at a close distance from Shanti Nagar, “We will make it Shanti Nagar “, the local community knew well of what was potentially enclosed in this statement.

They could never forget molten roofs and the terror associated with it. Everyone in the village was terrified. The situation got worse when the Niazi family and followers intimidated a Christian of setting the footing of his bed towards the holy place of Muslims. So they decided to punish him by punishing the whole village.

On April 26, Niazi’s sons and his followers assailed Chak 10R-31, but they encountered a retaliation from the first house they attacked. In cross-firing, a man from the attackers was shot dead which caused them to disperse. Police were there already, but they merely acted as silent spectators. It acted only after the assailants had dispersed and arrested more than 30 Christians of the village. The same police brutality was witnessed in Youhanabad in 2015.

Niazi and supporter’s sheer disappointment at the failure of the attack meant they were going to do it all over again. They falsely accused Christians of the murder of the assailant. Village’s Christian leader Chaudhary Asghar Fazal mediated to resolve this issue so he, along with local Catholic priest and human rights activists, went to Niazi’s residence for condolence and to show his sympathetic concerns for community and peace between both parties. This effort along with other leaders couldn’t yield any significant results.

Bishops and Pastors tried to bring peace between both groups, but like always, it was a failure. All efforts met a dead end. The case was being pursued in the court while Chaudhary Asghar Fazal kept assisting nominated Christians morally and legally. He was also supported by his peace loving Muslim friends.

On 29th July, the honorable court released the assailants and exonerated the Christians accused of having murdered a Muslim assailant. The court’s decision was another defeat to Niazi and supporters so they threatened Christians of dire consequences and targeted Chaudhary Asghar Fazal especially. His commotion was observed thoroughly. On the afternoon of August 2019, Niazi’s low life son Abdul Rehman Niazi shot Chaudhary Asghar Fazal dead. We have bad experiences with the Court and Justice system so we find no solid grounds to adhere to hopes for justice.

But the new government and a new establishment aspire us to believe mildly that murderers will be dealt with in accordance to the law, and new examples will be set. Niazi and his supporters have been sending threatening messages to the victim’s family. Gun down, kneecap, open massacre, are the kind of threats that are received daily.

It is said that culprits have the support of political leadership and extremist groups. Imdad Khan Niazi’s son has been arrested, but this arrest has not been registered.

We do have our concerns, but we are holding out hope for justice.

I’m supported and helped by many Christians and Muslims who are making efforts to ensure that justice is done. If justice is delivered, it will impart a sense of security to the minorities living in Pakistan. But if justice crumbles, the flames of the ashes of Shanti Nagar will continue to haunt the minority communities and remain a stain on the country’s minority rights record.

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