By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– The leader of one of Pakistan’s largest Pentecostal churches says he is “thankful” to God for persecution after he and other church members were attacked by violent Muslims, with police refusing to intervene.
“When I am in trouble I say thanks to God,” said Bishop Akram Gill of the Lahore-based 35,000-strong Emmanuel Church in an exclusive interview with BosNewsLife.
The 53-year-old Christian leader oversees 207 affiliated congregations, many in Lahore, where Christians still worship though their homes, furniture and Bibles were recently torched by furious Muslim mobs.
On Monday, August 26, fellow Christian Savan Masih spent another day behind bars, nearly half-a-year after being detained for alleged blasphemy, which sparked the anti-Christian violence.
As many as 3,000 Muslims rampaged through the city of Lahore’s ‘Joseph Colony’ on March 8-9 “to search” for Masih, 26, who has denied hurting Islamic feelings.
Muslims were seen burning about 200 Christian-owned homes, shops and churches in the Christian neighborhood of Lahore, the capital of Punjab province.
Bishop Gill and local residents said problems began when Masih was refused a hair cut by the local barber shop’s Muslim owner, Imran Shahid, triggering a heated exchange about religion between the two men.
Shahid reportedly told police that “drunk” Masih made “derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.” Police said the young man was taken into custody “pending an investigation” into the blasphemy allegations.
Gill was reportedly nearly killed when he and his two sons arrived to help church members and other Christians. “The moment I reached Joseph Colony, the mob attacked my car and started beating me. They also beat my son Charles Rickey Gill, who was driving my car, and my second son Alfred Vicky Gill, who was with me on the back seat,” the bishop said.
Gill was rescued, but later held by police who allegedly told him to hand-over Masih to avoid more attacks against local Christians.
Soon after, the bishop began contacting relatives and friends. “During my search I noticed that police ordered Christian residents to vacate the Joseph Colony and that they detained Chaman Masih, the father of the accused who was also beaten,” Gill explained.
He said the violence underscored wider animosity towards Christians in Pakistan. “On the first day of the attacks [in Lahore’s Joseph Colony ] I noticed that the Islamic cleric spread false information through the loudspeakers of the mosque…” saying “Sawan Masih committed blasphemy against prophet Muhammad.”
Soon after, thousands of Muslims were seen demanding Masih’s detention and attacking homes of Christians. “The angry protesters also started looting and crushing the households of Christians,” Gill recalled. “Christian houses, eight shops, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, electricity meters, gas meters, iron rods used in roofs were melted down on the floor while furniture, trunks, crockery and many more household items burned totally.”
What hurt Gill most, however, was that “in the churches photos of Jesus Christ along with the holy cross were burned, holy Bibles were burned and desecrated and…the Church was disrespected.”
With angry Muslims roaming the streets, “Innocent Christians, including women and children, immediately evacuated their houses only wearing their clothes, leaving behind their houses and possessions,” Gill recalled.
The bishop acknowledged that he and the national director of the Center for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), Joseph Francis, made the controversial decision to search for and hand-over to police, Savan Masih. Some rights activists have criticized that move. But Gill made clear it was done to avoid more bloodshed.
Additionally, Gill said, he and his sons managed to convince police to release the Christian’s father, Chaman Masih, who has denied the blasphemy charges.
Yet, the bishop admitted that police “did not intervene not stopped the violent mob,” despite their previous promises. Though he noted “a heavy contingent” of police, “Almost 3,000 religious zealots gathered around Joseph Colony, led by Shafiq Ahmed,” to attack Christians.
“The mob in the presence of the police entered the colony and started looting and put some 200 houses on fire. Two churches along with a chapel were vandalized and approximately around 500 Bibles were torched along with the furniture and other belongings of a school,” Gill explained.
“They [attacked] freely and without any fears for five hours while the police did not intervene nor stopped the violent mob,” he added. “The police failed to inform the angry Muslims about the arrest and registration of the blasphemy case against Sawan Masih.”
Amid the chaos, Bishop Gill began preaching the Gospel to the furious crowds. There were also several demonstrations against the violence by Christians, with some being briefly detained by police. Gill said being a devoted Christian in Pakistan remains dangerous.
“I am providing shelter and protection to Chaman Masih and his family and really concerned about them. My pastor Sunil and his family residents of Joseph Colony are also receiving death threats from Muslim extremists.”
He said his own family also received death treats after he criticized the attackers in the media. “From day one I am spending my time in the Joseph Colony to [help end] the misery of innocent Christians. I even launched a legal case against the Muslim mob and the Supreme Court of Pakistan is dealing with it.”
Thought he is pleased that the government has begun distributing cheques of 500,000 rupees ($5,100) to each of the impacted families as well as flood, clothing and medicine, tensions remain.
However he doesn’t give up hope, as his pentecostal church continues to grow. “As a servant of God it is my primary duty to protect the lost sheep of God,” he said.
(BosNewsLife, the first truly independent news agency covering persecuted Christians, is ‘Breaking the News for Compassionate Professionals’ since 2004).
Help BosNewsLife to be the voice of the voiceless. Click here for a subscription.