JARANWALA: It was not the usual Azaan that woke Pastor Javed Bhatti from his sleep but the mosque’s thundering call to protest against alleged blasphemy by Christians.
Instinctively, he knew something was amiss.
He gathered his family and ran to the street, where fellow Christians were already spilling from their homes into narrow alleyways.
“Some were running barefoot and some fled in rickshaws. There was chaos everywhere,” he told AFP on Thursday, a day after hundreds of Muslim men rampaged through the streets, burning homes and churches.
“The children were shouting, ‘run, run, the clerics are coming! They will attack us’,” his sister Naila Bhatti added.
Christians make up around 2% of the population and occupy one of the lowest rungs in Pakistani society. More than 5,000 live in the Christian quarter in Jaranwala, most of them sanitary workers on meagre wages who occupy cramped homes shared by up to 18 relatives.
As panic spread across the neighbourhood, Muslims also rushed to the streets to warn and shelter their neighbours. “The crowd came from outside (this area), but the local Muslims here helped us and tried to save us,” Pastor Bhatti said.
Tariq Rasool, in the same narrow street as Bhatti, said Muslims had quickly pinned Quranic verses on the doors of Christian homes in the hope they would be spared the violence.
“Two women were running. I opened the door of my house for them and let them inside. They were very worried but I consoled them,” the 58-year-old Muslim said.
The mob swelled in size and anger throughout the day, with hundreds at its peak rioting through the streets. By nightfall, at least four churches and a dozen houses and shops had been burned and ransacked, according to a news agency team at the scene.
Imran Qadri, a Muslim shopkeeper, said both faiths had long lived peacefully alongside each other in the neighbourhood: “They are our brothers. They share our sorrow and joy and we share their sorrow and joy.”
He opened his home to two Christian women as they fled the foreseen destruction. “They are still inside our house. My family helped them, provided them with food and they spent the night with us,” Qadri said, standing alongside Bhatti.
Further down the street, Parveen Bibi said she was woken up by her young children screaming: “Muslims are coming to burn our houses!”
“We took rickshaws to the home of our Muslim neighbours. The door was open and we all went inside. I was accompanied by women, my two daughters-in-law and children. The women said:
‘You are safe here, don’t worry’,” she explained tearfully, standing in the rubble of her home.
Several Christians who returned to their houses on Thursday to survey the damage said more than 300 people had fled in the initial hours of the riot, but hundreds more evacuated at night and on Thursday to stay with relatives in other towns.
Police have arrested more than 100 people allegedly linked to the violence and are searching for two Christian brothers accused of desecrating the Holy Quran.
Though the mob has dispersed and hundreds of police now guard the neighbourhood, many are too fearful to return home yet.
For Pastor Bhatti, returning has brought more pain for his family: “My own house was destroyed. This was our entire life’s earnings. Now how will we live here again?”
Separately, police guarded the Christian neighbourhood on Thursday, the second day of the tragic incident in Jaranwala.
“All the Christians have left their homes and taken refuge here and there,” Fayaz Masih Khokhar, a Christian man who had travelled from nearby Lahore to show solidarity with the community told the news agency.
On Thursday, government officials condemned the violence, while small protests were held in several cities calling for Christians to be protected.
“The current sad situation in the country demands that the leadership and religious figures of all religions and faiths play their key and fundamental role in safeguarding national unity,” the Bishop of Lahore, Nadeem Kamran, said in a statement.