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Christian persecution heats up after church set ablaze in Shahdara

Lahore: April 17, 2018. (PCP) Christians across Pakistan are facing up to a life of persecution rising to unprecedented levels after a church was set ablaze in Shahdara on Sunday 15th April 2018 at approximately 2:30pm. Perceptions of minority safety across the country have dipped dramatically after three terrorist attacks in Quetta have resulted in dozens of deaths and even more severe injuries.

One of the attacks occurred on the same Sunday after 2 individuals were killed and 3 others wounded in a drive-by shooting involving masked men on motorcycles (click here).

Parishioners of Gospel of Jesus Mission Pentecostal Church had finished their service successfully on Sunday from 9am - 11am and had returned to their homes to eat a Sunday meal. Lead Pastor for the church, Pastor Yousaf Aziz John, however was disturbed from his meal when he received a call from some of the Christian neighbours (not church members) living in property adjacent to the property. During the alarming call Pastor Yousaf was advised that the church building was on fire causing a moment of panic in the Pastor who ran the five minutes from his home to the church.

On arrival to the Church Pastor Yousaf found a number of local Christians both members of his church and other neighbours fighting the fire, using buckets of water using a water connection in the church.

The fire was quenched by the volunteers before any emergency services team arrived on site, however by then most of the church had been destroyed.

Pastor Yousaf Aziz spoke with a BPCA representative and explained that the foundation for the church building had been laid in 2014, with the help of congregation of the Church who funded the purchase of the land and resources and helped with free labour.

For at least five years prior to the laying of the foundation the church had been holding services in Pastor Yousaf's house until the size of the church became too large for them to continue - the current congregation is made up of over 200 people.

The church was not yet fully constructed and through donations and labour volunteers the church was being built slowly, however services were being held on the grounds of the church previously using a tent.

He described the day of the fire and said: "There are volunteers who guard the church during our services but soon after the Service the church is simply left locked. On Sunday we locked up as usual and everyone went home to eat their Sunday lunch.

"I was disturbed by a call to me during my lunch and ran to the church to see how big the fire was so I could put it out. By the time I arrived many volunteers were already tackling the fire quite successfully and I joined them after calling emergency services.

"When the fire was out I realised that our bibles and hymn books had been burnt it was a devastating blow, I felt disheartened and just prayed for God's help and guidance.

"We will continue our services whatever happens but it is heart-wrenching that our progress has been stalled by the fire,"

Pastor Yousaf believes that the fire was initiated by opponents of the the church. In recent months one teenager and his cousin were arrested for blasphemy and it is believed that the arson attack may well be in response to the perceived insult to Islam.

"We are a poor community and had been building the House of God with donations. We strongly believe that unknown miscreants have committed this evil.

Police sub-inspector Rana Amir visited the site of the arson attack on April 16 and has taken statements from members of the local community including parishioners.

"The forensics department collected samples the same night. A report will be released this week revealing the cause of the fire. A security plan has been chalked for the 14 churches of Shahdara registered with the police station, but no forces are appointed for unregistered ones," he said.

Churches have to register with a new Government office named the Auqaf Department, which supervises important religious monuments and holy places. Any religious buildings not registered are deemed illegal by the government. In January, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province closed but later reopened six home-based churches in Abbottabad.

Police have warned that they will not assist in any cases of violence, trespass or arson at worship centres that are unregistered. This provides a huge dilemma for impoverished Christians as many attend house-churches especially in Ghettos. Youhanabad, the largest Christian settlement in Pakistan, has more than 100 unregistered churches usually comprising a single room or a hall.

Wilson Chowdhry, Chairman of the BPCA, said: "This alleged attack on a church in its proximity to a recent village where two young men were arrested for blasphemy is suspicious to say the least. Moreover, the fact that a mob had formed prepared with fuel to burn down Christian homes in response to Patras Masih's arrest, adds to a believable plot-line.

"It is alarming that police are telling Christian communities that they will not be protected by the law if they attend services in house churches. The Christian community of Pakistan thrives because of churches like these that are able to meet people at the point of need in areas where more established wealthy churches have no desire to go due to no fiscal gain.

"It is a damning indictment on the statutory authorities that they deem an unregistered church a reason for ignoring violent incidents. A blazing church unattended could burn down many adjacent homes and crime at a church ultimately affects a whole community. I cannot imagine British police or any other western service being so negligent.

"Police without investigation listed the blaze as an accident and only began investigating potential arson after pressure by a local Christian MP. This unprofessionalism is ludicrous and will no doubt have wrecked a successful investigation.

"With no gas supply in the church and the fact that all the equipment in the church was unplugged and sockets switched off this seems the work of someone with a heinous motive. Christians have been increasingly targeted in Pakistan by groups such as IS and the Taliban. The government must act to provide better protection and stop designing law that only serve to undermine and marginalise the most peaceful of communities within the country."