Pakistan Christian community living in fear after mob killings: BBC

Pakistan Christian community living in fear after mob killings

Shahzeb Jillani visits the village where the Christian couple were lynched

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The fertile landscape in Chak 59 of Kasur district in the Punjab province is dotted with hundreds of brick kilns.

The factories, owned by powerful landlords, are notorious for thriving on “bonded labour”. Hundreds of thousands of people have remained locked in a cycle of debt and poverty for decades.

Rights groups call it a form of modern-day slavery.

Until last week, Sajjad Mesih and his wife Shama, a married Christian couple in their 30s, worked at one such brick kiln.

For years, they got up at dawn, laboured in harsh conditions through the day and finished up at dusk. That was their routine – every day, seven days a week. It was a life of debt and poverty that they hated.

On Tuesday, they were lynched and burnt to death there by a mob on allegations of blasphemy.

Flowers at the site of the couple's lynching in Pakistan, November 2014Flowers are left at the site of the couple’s lynching

Blasphemy is an explosive issue in Pakistan. Reporting of violence in the name of blasphemy is often self-censored, twisted and confused by misreporting.

Piecing together the sequence of events and what led to vicious crimes on the pretext of blasphemy is not always straightforward.

But having visited the remote rural area and after speaking to up to a dozen or so people – including police, family, neighbours and eyewitnesses – here is an account of what the BBC has been able to put together.

Running for their lives

It all appears to have started about a week ago when the couple first heard about someone claiming to have discovered burnt pages of the Koran near their mud brick house.

Some extremist villagers were said to be furious and planning to take some kind of an action against the family.

Undated family handout photo showing a Christian couple who were killed by a Muslim mob in Pakistan in November  2014Shama (L) was pregnant with her fifth child when the couple were attacked and killed

Shama’s sister Yasmeen knew more about the whispering campaign. Having converted to Islam along with her husband and children four years ago, she had good links inside the Muslim community.

It was through Yasmeen that the couple was sent an ultimatum by angry villagers, says Shahbaz Masih, a close relative of the couple.

“Start Quote

It could happen to anybody. Everyone here feels fearful”

Suleman MasihA brick kiln worker

They were told to convert to Islam to repent against their alleged sin or face the consequences for committing blasphemy.

Shama and her husband Sajjad knew then that their lives were in serious danger.

They had no intention of converting under duress. The only thing to do was to run for their lives.

On Monday, the couple informed the factory bosses that they feared for their lives and desperately needed to leave.

“Not without settling the debt you owe us,” the couple was told by furious owners.

They were then locked up in a room, in case they tried to escape without clearing their dues.

There are suggestions that the amount of loan money they owed was $600 (£380); others say it was about $1,500 (£948).

Pakistan's Christian community protests over the killing of the couple in Islamabad on 5 November 2014Members of Pakistan’s Christian community have staged protests demanding justice for the couple’s murder

The next morning, before dawn, a group of extremist villagers went around the area to call on members of the public “to come out for the defence of their great religion”.

Clerics from local mosques used loud speakers to incite violence. Soon, hundreds of angry people converged on the brick kiln looking for the Christian couple.

“They had blood in their eyes,” says a young Christian man who watched the lynching from a safe distance. “I was scared. No one could do anything to stop them.”

A few policemen from the nearby check post soon arrived and tried to intervene. But they were outnumbered and beaten up by the mob and told to stay out of it.

The crowd then dragged the pair out of the room, where they were held by the factory owner. They were attacked with bricks and shovels and later laid on the brick oven to be burnt alive.

Three lives lost

At the time of the murder Shama was expecting her fifth child, says her family.

Three lives were lost in the gruesome murders.

The Christian community in the area is horrified by the public lynching.

In the nearby Christian-majority town of Clarkabad, there is anger at the state’s failure to protect its vulnerable and at risk communities.

Suleman Masih, a brick kiln worker in Pakistan, November 2014Suleman Masih also works at the brick kilns and is in fear of Tuesday’s killings being repeated

“It could happen to anybody. Everyone here feels fearful,” says Suleman Masih, a brick kiln worker.

For its part, the government has appeared to move swiftly to try to reassure the beleaguered community. Scores have been arrested under the country’s tough anti-terror laws and the hunt is on for the remaining suspects.

But given the culture of impunity around violence against minorities, many here are not convinced.

“We want justice and until the culprits are held to account, Christians in Pakistan will not feel safe,” says pastor Azmat Nadeem of the Church of Pakistan.

Pakistan is a long way from changing or repealing its notorious blasphemy laws.

At best, the only thing the country’s vulnerable and at risk communities can really hope for now is that the authorities will treat this case seriously and possibly deter similar gruesome crimes from happening again.

The South Asian Equalizer

Samuel Colt, the founder of Colt’s Manufacturing Company, died in 1862. Eleven years after his death, the M1873 .45 single action Army SAA Mod P revolver ensured his posterity. It was known as the Peacemaker, and the Equalizer that won the West, even though history records an unequal contest. Had Samuel Colt been an Indian, he would have been called Samir Kalloo and his Equalizer a katori bowl of mouth-watering, belch-inducing lamb trotters, or payas as rightfully known.

Kala Hotel in Yakki Gate, run by the famous Kala Pehelwan following his retirement from kushti wrestling was known to Lahore’s select foodies.

Kala Hotel had a long, narrow dining hall of bare, smooth cement. There were tables for four at each side, covered with tacked down plastic. The walls had pictures of the Holy Ka’aba, a few saints’ shrines, and bulging-eyed, bare-chested and mustachioed wrestlers from Kala Pehelwan’s family holding decorated gurze maces . Some of the pictures were draped with tinsel garlands. Punjabi music played to the kahrewa beat of dholak, mirdhang and k’tara /iktara.

At the entrance to the dining hall, facing the street, were the huge deg pots and para’at trays of lamb payas, siri-payas or lamb’s head and trotters, liver and kidney, heart-liver-lungs and superb free range chicken chargha!

The meat was personally selected by the pehelwan every day, and the cooking was also supervised by him. It was said that all the cooks and waiters remained in a state of pre-prayer ritual wash known as vuzoo —ensured by the Pehelwan. When they smiled, you could see the stain of the walnut bark dandasa with which they had cleaned their teeth. Their clothes looked fresh, and they smelled of soap. Discreet incense sticks were lit in the corners. Underneath every table was an empty kerosene oil tin. Every table had a notice: PATRONS ARE REQUESTED TO THROW THEIR BONES IN THE TINS BELOW THE TABLE AND NOT ON THE FLOOR.

The discriminating clientele ranged from lawyers acocuntants and police officers to haard-core gangsters and day labourers of all castes and religions living in Lahore.

The classless impact of payas could be felt to the bone.

Yet, there was a wide gap between the street and the household. For cooking payas took at least twelve hours, if not more. In some homes they were cooked regularly, in others, a takeaway dish. There was a choice of being dependent or independent at the high price of twelve hours labour!

Then in 1964, Sheikh Abdul Razzak, of Sialkote’s, Majestic  company took pity on the households which neither had an army of servants nor a surplus of women. The Majestic pressure cooker, by uniting the street and the home with a single, classless dish, took democratization a step further. Households could buy raw payas in the morning and pressure cook them for lunch in as much time as it took to prepare a simple meat and veg curry. If they wanted the traditional taste of slow cooking, they could always buy payas.

Choice, after all, is a component of liberty.

The democratizing effect of payas can be traced to the end of the 18th century. During the beginning of the Mughal empire’s decline, Urdu flourished and the aristocracy, after a night of poetry and dance spectacles, enjoyed paya / nihari in the early hours of the morning and then slept off their hangovers! Payas, throwaway hoofs which the poor retrieved to nourish themselves had, by dint of talented hard work, become a gourmet delicacy that made it to the tables of the aristocracy. In their consumption, sensory pleasure superseded class.

In Lahore of the seventies karigars from Old Lahore moved to establishments in the suburbs, or opened their own, further narrowing the gap between social class and availability.

The final democratization came through press freedom.

Competing TV stations broadcast programs in which mediagenic chefs brought their skills into living rooms from which the kitchen was only short, dedicated step away. And there it rests, except that although the elephant has gone through the gate, its tail is stuck.

Like meteorology, democratization being an ongoing and imprecise process in the developing world, the taste of payas slow cooked by a karigar or a dedicated home-maker remains unmatched as an Equalizer. A lesson for politicians tripping over each other in dedicated power-grabs.