The intruders wore masks and carried guns. They went door to door, through the narrow and dusty alleyways, asking if there were any Christians inside. When the terrified faces inside replied yes, they poured chemicals on the small, redbrick homes of Episcopalians and Evangelicals, setting them ablaze. In some cases, they didn't bother with the question. Instead, they opened fire and hurled rocks, forcing families to flee in a panic moments before fresh flames consumed their homes as well. When the attackers were done, nine people had been killed and 45 homes lay smoldering and destroyed in the clustered Christian colony in Gojra, a town in central Punjab, marking the worst anti-Christian violence Pakistan has seen in recent years.
A tearful woman crouches over rubble outside the attackers' first target. "Look what they have done to our church," says Shahida William, the wife of the pastor, pointing at the deeply blackened one-room Faith Bible Church. Inside, bricks are strewn across the floor. The stinging smell of the chemicals used still hangs in the air. A few houses down, Ethel Gill points to nine bullet holes that have been punched into the top story of her home: "They threw rocks and bricks at us. Then they opened fire. We cowered for safety and ran away, jumping over roofs of other houses. We eventually found sanctuary in a church." She shows the remains of her Urdu-language Bible: "Look at our holy book. The pages are all burnt. Is this not desecration?"
The roots of the attack lie in Korian, a village 5 miles from Gojra. There, a Christian family was celebrating a wedding on July 28 when, somehow, a rumor spread alleging that the revelers had torn the pages of the Koran and thrown them in the air. No evidence has emerged that this actually happened. But the mere suggestion appeared to set off days of rioting. Christian homes in Korian were torched before the violence spread to Gojra. Last Friday, Christian residents say, the preacher at a nearby mosque issued a fiery sermon inciting violence against them. The police visited the Christian community later that night, warning them of possible violence the next day. Some left that very night. But it appears others didn't receive the warning and were present when thousands of Muslim protesters charged through the town.
Clashes ensued between the advancing Muslim crowd and the much smaller group of Christians trying to push them back. The police were caught in the middle for some time before they, for reasons that remain unclear, melted away. Some members of the Christian community allege that the police stood by as a group of armed men mounted an attack. Paramilitary forces were dispatched on Sunday, but their arrival came too late, residents say.
Authorities and human-rights groups now suspect that the attackers belonged to the Sipah-e-Sahaba, a sectarian militant group from the nearby town of Jhang. A senior member, Qari Saifullah, served as Taliban commander Baitullah Mehsud's right-hand man and trained scores of suicide bombers. The group's even more vicious offshoot, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, is considered al-Qaeda's front in Pakistan. The enduring and undisturbed presence of Sipah-e-Sahaba and other militant groups in central and southern Punjab has led many analysts to predict that the militants will open up their next front here. Already, the Pakistan army has said "splinter groups" from Jaish-e-Mohammad have been fighting alongside the Taliban in Swat. And Punjab is also home to front groups of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the outlawed militant group that was blamed for last November's Mumbai massacre.
The Gojra tragedy has sparked outrage across Pakistan. The government has ordered a judicial commission to investigate what happened and Parliament unanimously passed a resolution condemning the violence. Islamabad's gestures, however, have done little to assure Pakistan's estimated 3 million Christians, who are 60% Catholic and 40% Protestant (the second largest religious minority, after Hindus). Many now question whether they can remain safe in a country that has long neglected them and continues to have blasphemy laws that have been repeatedly exploited by violent extremists.
"This isn't the first time that this has happened," says Pastor William, who heads the burned one-room church. Similar episodes of broke out in the towns of Shantinagar in 1997 and Shangla Hill in 2005. Just last month, accusations of blasphemy triggered violence in four different towns in Punjab. On Tuesday, two people were killed in the town of Muridke after a similar accusation was raised. In each case, says William, blasphemy laws are used as a pretext for attacks on religious minorities. Anger is now spreading in Pakistan's Christian community. On Wednesday, riots broke out in Lahore's Youhanabad neighborhood, where stick-wielding Christian protesters smashed buses and property.
Pakistan's blasphemy laws date back to the colonial era. The late military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq introduced a further, harsher clause as part of his sweeping "Islamization" program. Human-rights groups have long appealed to successive governments to repeal or amend the laws. The current ruling party, the Pakistan People's Party, vowed to do so in its election manifesto. As yet, nothing has been done. But presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar says the Gojra tragedy "has increased the urgency of revisiting these laws."