As they wailed and wept and prayed under the tin awning that shades the path into this clustered colony of small homes, the question on the minds the Pakistani Christians gathered in Gojra was expressed by a priest: "Who will protect us now?"
Last week's brutal assassination of Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minorities Minister and sole Christian Cabinet minister, has united his coreligionists in despair not for the first time. "Life here stopped in horror," says Pastor Zulfikar, as he is widely known in the community, of the moment that the news of Bhatti's murder had arrived. "We couldn't speak. We couldn't eat," he says, his voice growing thicker with emotion. "Our greatest leader had been martyred, and we began to worry again."
Pakistan's Christians have never had it easy. In a country consecrated as a Muslim homeland, their lives have long been subject to official discrimination and punctuated by violent attacks. But, 18 months ago, a new and intense ordeal began in Gojra, in this maze of overcrowded red brick homes, deep in Punjab province.
In August 2009, masked and armed militants went door-to-door, setting Christian homes ablaze. Where they saw Christians escaping the roaring flames, they opened fire, forcing them to flee in panic, clambering over nearby rooftops. The police had melted away at the start of the five-hour pogrom. And when it was over, nine people were dead, while 70 homes and three churches lay smoldering.
Traces of that attack are still apparent. Some of the homes are yet to be rebuilt, with stacks of bricks and bags of cement further narrowing the dusty alleyways that divide rows of homes. Some of the culprits were arrested, but 29 still remain at large, as does the mullah who incited the attack, falsely accusing Gojra's Christians of desecrating the Koran. Most vivid, however, are the scars still etched on the survivors' memories.
"We were almost defenseless, and they had the most advanced weapons," recalls Kaiser Victor, a 32-year-old cleaner, whose mother and sister were burned alive. Like Victor, many of the colony's residents are municipal cleaners or perform other low-paying menial jobs. "In one minute, we could hear 30 or 40 bullets being fired," he adds. "We just had stones to throw back at them. Only two or three among us had guns."
Naveed Fauji whose last name derives from the Urdu word for soldier, his previous occupation was one of them. "For two and a half hours, I fought them back with my pump-action shotgun," he says. From a rooftop, he intermittently returned fire, husbanding his small reserve of ammunition. Now, revered as a local hero, Fauji's army training is said to have saved the lives of the some 300 women who had taken shelter below, in his family's home.
Similar acts of heroism will be needed in the future, the residents say. Since Bhatti's assassination and the earlier killing of Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer (who had spoken against the persecution of Christians), they feel no one is left to stand up for them. "The two men who came here to speak for us, Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, have both been killed," says Zulfikar. "This country's leaders are no longer safe, so how will they protect us?"
In the days after the 2009 attack, Taseer had visited, along with Bhatti, to console the victims. "If the kind of police that is here to protect me now was there at the time to protect them," the governor said at the time, gesturing toward his bodyguard, "then this tragedy wouldn't have happened." The irony, of course, was that it was one such guard that killed Taseer because of his opposition to blasphemy laws used to persecute Christians. Bhatti was slain for the same reason, his assassins said, in pamphlets left near his bullet-ridden and bloodstained car.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani also went to Gojra soon after the attack to promise that any laws that discriminate against minorities would be reviewed. He has long abandoned that position in the face of widespread hostility whipped up by the religious right.
The blasphemy laws make the death penalty mandatory for anyone found to have insulted Islam and its Prophet. In practice, a mere accusation is enough to spark a mob's rage, often directed at Pakistan's vulnerable minorities, while the state remains complicit. "The injustice is that if two people get together and accuse one of us, we are sentenced to death," says Zulfikar. "There's no need of any proof, just one person's testimony."
In Gojra, the police simply melted away. But in the case of Aasia Noreen, a farm worker from another part of Punjab who was last year hounded by a mob that accused her of blaspheming, the police actually facilitated her persecution, charging her with blasphemy after ostensibly taking her into protective custody. She became the first woman sentenced to death in Pakistan, and it was in her defense that Taseer and Bhatti rose to renew their calls for the laws to be reformed. But their pleas were cast by opponents as acts of blasphemy as well. Taseer's death was celebrated at large rallies, led by the religious right. The law's keenest champions, of course, have little patience with due process and prefer to take matters into their own hands.
That's what keeps one family hiding in a state of constant fear. Last July, two brothers, Rashid and Sajid Emmanuel, were shot dead outside a Faisalabad courtroom where they were being tried on charges of blasphemy. The family denies that pair did anything wrong. Leaflets were circulated, accusing them of having scrawled messages insulting Islam's Prophet. The handwriting didn't match, but the two men's parents and siblings have never found shelter since, regularly shifting locations and changing phone numbers.
"Why do they kill us Christians?" asks their weeping mother, Rani Emmanuel. The community suffers from as much a caste prejudice as a religious one. In Punjab, most of the Christians were formerly low-caste Hindus, branded as "dirty" by Pakistani bigots, and many are able to find work only as cleaners. They are afforded little protection by the state and lack the means to pay for their own. It is little wonder, then, that after Bhatti's assassination, many desperately wish to leave.
"Today, I want to address Muhammad Ali Jinnah," Asiya Nasir, a Christian lawmaker told parliament, pointing accusingly at the portrait of the country's founder. "You told us to come here and make a home with you. When the Gojra tragedy happened, I said that our future generations will ask us if we regret coming here. Now, we are filled with regret."