LAHORE - A year ago on March 15, 2015, Reverend Ashknaz of the Christ Church, Youhanabad woke up for his Sunday sermon and thought it would be just another day, but he could not have been more wrong. Christ Church and the Roman Catholic Church, both in Youhanabad were simultaneously targeted by suicide attacks. As 21 family members and friends lay dead, while 70 others were injured, residents recall the police’s reaction, and how it only responded to the lynching that took place later, instead of the bombings themselves. Many residents of the community are angry about the government’s treatment of the whole issue, and how the lynching incident took centre-stage, even when 21 other lives had also been lost as a result of the senseless attack.
Sitting in Christ Church, Youhanabad, residents, civil activists and the church staff, including Rev Irshad Ashknaz, expressed why they were still angry, and how they felt the government had let the Christian community down.
The rest of the country might have forgotten the events of March 15 last year, and what transpired after, but those affected still remember it vividly. Dixon David and his son were two of the people picked up by the police after the attacks. “We held funerals for those who died on March 17, and the same night, the police conducted a raid in which 250-300 people were rounded up (for the lynching incident), but no progress had been made on the bombing investigation as of yet.”
The government and police may have willingly participated in this marginalisation. There are allegations of torture against the police, and widespread reports of holding individuals based on insufficient evidence. “The police were grabbing and picking people up based on whims. No evidence was presented, and many of us were beaten in the hopes to get more names out of us,” Dixon David recalls.
“There weren’t only Christians present in that mob. Muslims were there too. Lots of them. And yet, the nightly raids were targeting us specifically,” said another eyewitness Asher Naveed, Security Advisor for Christ Church.
Members of the community feel that the Joint Investigation Team formed to find out the truth behind what happened failed in its duty. They demanded an impartial judicial inquiry given their distrust for the police. Rev Ashknaz was of the view that, “Forming a Joint Investigation Team did not work. It was a cover-up, because the police’s role following the incident was ignored. An impartial judicial enquiry should have been held instead.” He went on to say: “We stressed the importance of this in a press conference, but no one listened. The media ignored us too, unless it was to portray us in a negative light.”
The evidence the police used against them after the lynching is circumstantial at best. The police found its evidence 72 days after the incident, and long after it started rounding up suspects without probable cause. This evidence included the weapons used in the lynching and bottles that contained the petrol used to burn the Metro Station.
A murder weapon can only be called a murder weapon if forensic evidence such as DNA samples or strands of hair can be linked to it of both the suspect and the victim. Such facts put into question the entire investigation process of the police. Any evidence the police presents must hold up in court, and that does not seem to be the case.
The police have video evidence of the protests that has led to police harassing the community to find suspects. However, those involved in the peaceful protests are not necessarily the same people that were involved in arson and the lynching. Entire families have been left without any support because the breadwinners have been picked up, and those that have been bailed out cannot hold a stable job because of frequent court dates.
Samra, a young girl who got married only a year before the blast, lives with her in-laws, as both her husband Rohail William and her only brother Shehzad were arrested by the police in the lynching case. Her parents had already passed away, before the events of March 15. She told The Nation, “I used to work after Rohail was arrested. But then my son became ill. He is 1 and a half year old. Now my in-laws support me.”
Asked if she received any assistance from any other avenue, she stated: “No one has ever helped me. No organisation or even the government.” Fauzia James’ husband died in the attack on Christ Church. The compensation money she was given by the government was taken by her in-laws, after which they kicked her and her young daughter out of the house.
“It has been very hard (to manage). I stay with my sister and her husband, but it is not ideal. It is not free either. It’s not about money, but how I can contribute to their house (by working within),” she said.
When asked about how their family members are faring inside prison, Samra states, “They (those in prison) do not let us visit them, because they do not want us to see what they are going through.”
When asked, how they see the Muslim community in general, resident Alvin Nayyar said, “We have friends that are Muslims. We know that all Muslims are not anti-Christian. But the government chooses to facilitate groups that are, and want to do harm to the Christian community. This, we do not approve of.”
Michelle Chaudhry, Director of the Cecil and Iris Foundation added, “Whenever a blast happens in Charsadda, or elsewhere, the government declares the victims as martyrs. The people we lost were not even given that (courtesy). One small step in treating us as equal citizens would be to at least declare our loved ones as martyrs too.”