The stench of acid and sewage, blackened walls, hollowed-out windows, broken arches of churches and desecrated crosses – this is what parts of the Pakistani city of Jaranwala currently looks like after mobs of thousands attacked the Christian community there on 16 August 2023.
Less than a week later, our local partners were on the ground, visiting and praying with believers – reporting back what they are seeing and hearing. As they talked to believers, our partners met the owners of homes where Bibles had been burned and crosses shattered. Christians shared horrific stories of running for their lives and watching as their homes and everything they owned burned to the ground.
Open Doors’ partners report that an estimated 20 churches and at least two dozen homes belonging to Christians were attacked – sudden and explosive violence that has left Christians traumatised, grieving, homeless and asking for answers.
One believer, Rehana Bibi*, recalled the scene: “Some of our people got into cars or onto bikes and buses and left for other cities. But most of us headed for the sugarcane fields. It was dark, dangerous and the only place left to go. And there was no hope of coming back home, as we saw the fires blaze and the air, thick and black over our colonies. We sat, watched, despaired and tried to cover our babies with our bodies to protect them. They were so confused.”
Rahid, a Christian worker in the area, added: “These kind of things should not happen. It was deeply traumatic for us and our youth workers. We deny that such things may happen but when they do, they threaten everything, even our dignity.”
Ten ways to pray for Pakistan’s Christians
Local believers, including Open Doors partners, said they think the attacks were intentional and even coordinated because the Christians in Jaranwala do not live in one place but are located throughout the city. So are their churches. Many churches are hidden or run as house churches.
“We believe that an initial group of men ran ahead breaking down doors, then another group followed with acid and drenched homes, Bibles and cupboards, and then a third group carried away appliances, beds and articles that could be sold,” a local partner shared. “The final group came through looking for whatever had been left behind.
“This act of terror was intended to draw out collective and communal fear from the Christians of Jaranwala and those across Pakistan. It was designed to create uncertainty and confusion. It was not the experience of one or two who then passed it on to one another. It was collective, it was immediate and it was in mass.”
After speaking with survivors, another partner said he believes the Christian community was targeted. “Where churches were burnt, the adjacent buildings were left untouched,” he says. “The mob began by breaking down doors and windows, calling for blood, seeking out Bibles and crosses and destroying anything Christian, even the graves in the cemetery.
“They would go into homes and churches, pile Bibles high and set them alight. There were layers and layers of burning Bibles, many still on fire 30 hours later. They climbed onto buildings, pulled down crosses from churches, pillaging and destroying whatever they could find. Yet, the buildings of the majority community adjacent to these churches were untouched.”
The authorities reportedly have arrested more than 160 people believed to have been part of the attack. The motive for the attack has been widely reported as a case of blasphemy. Two young Christian men were accused of ripping pages from the Quran. During the attack, they went into hiding but have since been found and are now in custody.
In Pakistan, accusations of blasphemy are often made to target and oppress minority groups, as even an accusation can result in mob violence. “The frequency and scale of such attacks, which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable, appear to have increased in the last several years,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan told Reuters.
Jaranwala’s Christian community
Until these recent attacks, the city of Jaranwala would be almost unknown outside Pakistan. It is located 35km (about 20 miles) southeast of Faisalabad and 110km (about 70 miles) from Lahore, both major cities in the country. Jaranwala’s population is over 120 000, with only an estimated 5 000 Christians living there.
Over the past 50 years, Christians living in this area were pushed out of land ownership. The historically Christian community sold their agricultural land for a minimal price to wealthy landlords and exchanged their work in the fields for low-paying menial and often dangerous jobs, such as janitors and sanitation workers. This is a pattern in Pakistan, where those from minority religions are thought of and treated as second-class citizens.
In Jaranwala, this group of Christians found themselves forming their own communities within the city, living close together in low-cost housing and earning very little. They were supported by Christian pastors and ministries that have worked faithfully to feed the people with their limited resources.
Those believers and all Christians throughout Pakistan are familiar with persecution or accusations of blasphemy that result in mob violence. They have seen believers persecuted in their country, on their streets and in their churches. And as they have witnessed a loss of freedom, property, their churches and even their lives, they have continued to walk with God, reminding us that He is always close.
Another Open Doors local partner shared about meeting Serena*, a young girl with beautiful bright eyes who sat holding pieces of a cross together: “She looked at me, pointing to her heart and said: ‘They do not know our secret. His cross is actually here.’”
“We will remain”
In the wake of so much ugliness and hurt, believers continue to turn to Christ, drawing from His strength and hope and even praising God. The Sunday after the attacks, Christians in Jaranwala continued to pray and worship together, gathering for a church service amid broken glass and piles of rubble. The service drew not only Christians from the city but also believers from other areas of Pakistan.
They are Christians like Pastor Faryad*, who lived through a similar attack in his area. “As we entered the town, the faces changed quickly,” he shared with our local partners. “From angry, hateful faces who wished us to leave, we started to see the anguish and terror on the faces of those who had just been through the worst events of their lives. Women and men who identified themselves as Christians stood on Sunday with the stench of destruction clinging to them.”
A local partner at the same church service echoed Pastor Faryad. “The pain of the attack hung in their eyes,” this partner said. “Their pain filled the songs they sang and the tears they shed for the suffering they had just been through.”
Another Open Doors partner reported that many Christians testified about God’s protection. “They witnessed God’s grace and mercy,” he said. “In the storm of hate, they found a refuge – although they lost everything, they didn’t lose their faith in a Protector and sovereign King.”
However, the months ahead will be difficult. Physical and emotional recovery isn’t certain. Although the Pakistani government has begun to distribute the equivalent of $6 800 (2 million rupees) to the nearly 100 families whose homes were attacked, the emotional toll is impossible to measure.
Open Doors’ partners shared that based on their years of experience of ministering to the Christian population in Pakistan, the Christian community of Jaranwala has a long road ahead. “We have seen many believers act and respond in different ways to church attacks and other similar incidents, mostly their response depends on the social context, past experiences and future expectations,” they shared.
“The communities and individuals of Jaranwala will demonstrate acute stress and anxiety, depression, panic, hunger, disease and heightened substance abuse and other problems in the coming weeks.”
Yet, amid this reality, they live with the hope of Christ that has sustained Christians in a country hostile to them and their faith for about 300 years.
“It is our hope that Pakistan’s Christians will stay, serve and keep believing that God will bring us justice, relief and restoration,” a local partner shared. “For this, we must be part of the solution. We are here because we never left; we will remain here with our people – serving God and washing their feet.”
Pray for the Church in Pakistan.
*Representative names used for security purposes.