UK: Catholic charity appeals in Parliament on behalf of victims of Pakistan atrocity

The aftermath of the Jaranwala atrocity.
The aftermath of the Jaranwala atrocity.

The UK Parliament has heard from a leading Catholic charity how – eight months on – the victims of the worst atrocity against Christians in Pakistan are still anxiously waiting for justice and feel deeply disappointed by the state’s response to the violence they suffered.

The address from John Pontifex of Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) (UK), the Catholic charity for persecuted Christians, was given yesterday (17th April) at a panel discussion hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Freedom of Religion or Belief in the House of Commons, Westminster.

DUP MP for Strangford Jim Shannon chaired the event, and in attendance was Labour MP for Putney, Roehampton and Southfields Fleur Anderson, as well as representatives from ACN (UK), Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK, the Hindu community and the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistan Minorities.

 Focusing on the August 2023 attacks in Jaranwala district, involving the torching of 26 churches and scores of homes belonging to Christians, Mr Pontifex, ACN (UK)’s head of press and public affairs, stated: “For Pakistan’s Christians, 16th August 2023 surely ranks as one of the darkest, most catastrophic days in their history.”

Quoting Bishop Indrias Rehmat, the Catholic Bishop of Faisalabad in which the town of Jaranwala is located, he said: “‘I went to see the government’s work to repair our church buildings but told them to stop. They wanted to show the media that everything was OK but they had just whitewashed the walls. Still, I could smell the smoke. It is not safe to pray under these roofs.

‘Similarly, there is little sign of victims being awarded compensation for loss of personal property destroyed or looted in the atrocity.’”

Mr Pontifex called for the UK Government to lobby its counterparts in Pakistan to do more to bring to justice the perpetrators of the Jaranwala atrocity:

“This is an urgent concern, noting both the criticism of the Supreme Court of Justice regarding lack of progress to date and also the fears of Christians in Jaranwala and around the county who say they cannot feel safe unless the culprits are brought to book.”

He went on to set out a series of recommendations for the UK Government in line with those expressed in the Persecuted Yet Again report which was produced in February by Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Mr Pontifex stated: “We call on the UK Government to request that the Pakistan government establish a statutory national commission into the rights of minorities in line with the recommendation of the 2014 Supreme Court Jilani judgement.

“The Jilani judgement mandated the government to develop a strategy to promote religious tolerance, to set up a National Council of Minorities Rights to monitor what it called the “practical realisation of the rights and safeguards provided to the minorities under the commission,” and to develop policy recommendations for safeguarding and protecting minorities’ rights.”

Mr Pontifex highlighted the words of Bishop Samson Shukardin, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, writing in the NCJP’s Persecuted Yet Again report:

“‘We have paid a heavy price for the state’s neglect regarding the actions of extremist groups against religious minorities in the country. We demand that the government does not leave religious minorities at the mercy of religious extremism and we call on the state to take concrete steps to restore the broken confidence of religious minorities.’”

Mr Pontifex noted positive developments – the Anti-Terrorism Court in Faisalabad’s decision to release Christian brothers Rocky and Raja Masih, two illiterate men accused of writing blasphemous content. Accusations against them triggered the Jaranwala violence.

Mr Pontifex, who described how in 2006 he went to Mass in one of the churches in Jaranwala attacked last August, said: “As the Jaranwala atrocity began to unfold, I was among the first outside Pakistan to receive direct reports of the atrocity from senior church leaders.

“I recall [vicar general of Faisalabad diocese] Father Abid Tanveer’s voice breaking as he tried to put into words what was going on.

“In the months since, my colleagues and I at Aid to the Church in Need have consistently campaigned around the atrocity.”

In January, ACN (UK) organised a Parliamentary event on the Jaranwala atrocity chaired by Lord Alton of Liverpool involving the launch of the Persecuted Yet Again report and a keynote address by Catholic Archbishop Sebastian Shaw of Lahore.