Youhanabad Incident | Pakistan Today

Youhanabad Incident

Leadership’s trickledown failure


Two churches, 17 dead and 80 injured. And that was only the beginning. The Youhanabad incident began with an acute failure of leadership, and it worsened for the same reason. After two men were burned alive by a mob the focus shifted from the victims and survivors to a more sinister narrative — and it has been on the loop since then.

The Christian community has been failed at all levels of leadership: from the National Action Plan and its perpetual excuses of infancy to the Christian religious leadership that is not sure of what to do. The attack by the Taliban, the subsequent reaction in Youhanabad and the atrocity that most are sure is yet to come as retaliation, are all courtesy failed leadership.

Researcher Asif Aqeel believes that after a sectarian divide, the TTP is now aiming to create rifts between religions. “The obvious fact is that there is terrorism and there are dimensions related to it. The terrorists have made the Shia-Sunni divide worse and now they have shifted focus to the Muslim-Christian divide. People didn’t react in the past as they have now, but with this attack the TTP has managed to succeed to an extent,” he said.

Pakistan Interfaith League Chairman Sajid Ishaq has been working with the government as a mediator for the Christian community. He highlighted the weaknesses of the government and the police force. “Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) has always had issues with the rule of law. When you don’t have political will to protect the minorities or the citizens then there will be problems; that will has always been absent from this government,” he said.

Ishaq observed that the security provided to the area to begin with was close to non-existent. “Before the TTP attack the men they had deployed were just enough to save face. This is an embarrassing situation for the CM Punjab because this is his own constituency, this is where he got the votes to win, and he has no control over the situation. And after the blasts had happened and a riot was expected, the police force was stationed almost a kilomtre away from Youhanabad. The Rangers were only deployed three days later, why weren’t they sent sooner? What the mob did was unfortunate and has happened for the first time in the history of Christianity in Pakistan,” he said.

His concerns are mirrored by those expressed by Aqeel.

“The police used media’s profiling and identified the two men as suspects. The mob did not pick them out at random; the police had held them back after suspecting them of involvement in the attacks. The police have a responsibility here and they should be blamed for their fault in profiling. The mob most certainly was not thinking clearly and did not process that the people they were attacking and killing were Pakistani Muslims. The mob at large, I am guessing, did not know the men and thought they were from somewhere else,” he explained. The question remains as to why the police were not able to handle the situation on their own. Even if the two men had been suspects, why was the police unable to retain them? There is also the question of how Maryam Safdar’s car was able to enter a cordoned area. Why was the car not stopped? The police’s negligent behaviour has left many astonished.

“The situation could’ve been quelled if the mob had been dispersed by bringing the leadership in. The authorities know precisely who to talk to and who to bring forward, but nothing of the sort was done. If you could use tear gas and baton-charge on Tuesday, then why not on Sunday? Either they deliberately allowed the situation to erupt or they were totally unprepared to deal with any such crisis. If such a small and poor community can cause such chaos, then what will they do if a larger threat comes about?” he wondered.

In terms of the chaos that followed, the atmosphere of the area was already full of distrust. Aqeel believes this could have been a factor in the mob’s burning of the two men.

“People at that time thought there were 10-12 terrorists involved in the assault. There are some that claim that the men were firing and were caught doing that. Some say that they were found with weapons on them. In that confusion whatever happened, happened,” he recalled.

However, Aqeel believes there was no anti-Muslim sentiment at play. “The mob’s aim was not to hurt Muslims, they were reacting in fear towards terrorists,” he said.

Of course, the situation could have been handled better through stronger leadership, and failure of the same did not end there.

The Christian leadership, according to PIL’s Sajid Ishaq, is just as much at fault.

“Any community has two leaderships: one is the political leadership and the other is the top clergy. It is unfortunate that our religious leaders have had no statement of purpose or plan of action to deal with such situations. I was at the scene within half an hour of the TTP attacks. What I observed was that the political leadership and the church leadership were not on the same page. Even between the two churches that were attacked there was little to no coordination.

“We begged about what the plan was, but there was nothing there. When you have leadership like this, what else will happen? A mob is like an unguided missile… when they reacted there was no one to handle them. Unfortunately, Youhanabad also didn’t have any political leadership mobilised,” he lamented.

Ishaq is of the view that the church leadership needs to go beyond their egos and come together for the betterment of their community. “Even after all that’s happened, I still don’t see the clergy showing the seriousness that is expected of them. There is no mass mobilisation. There are a lot of small churches but the bigger churches refuse to coordinate with them. Whatever has happened cannot be undone but the people that are left need to be protected. Unless we are united we can’t build pressure for our rights, we won’t count for anything, we can’t mould the government or do any opinion-building,” he said.

Christians have been apolitical over decades and have not had a real space in mainstream politics. It was Gen Musharraf who brought them back in but no leadership of their own exists in the Parliament.

“The leadership we do have are considered lackeys of the parties that bring them into the Parliament on reserve seats. That’s why when Kamran Michael was sent to the area to talk to the mob, he was roughed up and denied entry into the Christian colony. If he had to come back to get a vote from the area, he would have worked harder for the community,” Ishaq said.

Senator Kamran Michael, who is also Federal Minister for Ports and Shipping, was unavailable for a comment despite repeated attempts.

Provincial Minister for Minorities Affairs & Human Rights Khalil Tahir Sindhu was also unreachable for a comment on the situation.

Clergy in denial

Bishop of Lahore Irfan Jamil feels that the clergy did the best that they could. “The tragedy was so large something was happening somewhere and other things were happening at other places. We did the best we could,” he said.

When questioned on why it took so long for the clergy to condemn the brutal killings of the two men that were burned alive, he said, “I don’t think this is the case. People reacted as fast as they could. People have been talking to the media and conducting meetings. I don’t think there was any delay, I haven’t heard of any delay. We were busy helping other people and busy dealing with the tragedy,” he said.

Despite the fact that the Youhanabad area is a violent one, and prone to rioting and chaos, the clergy wasn’t available to calm the storm. Bishop Jamil feels this wasn’t the case.

“The priests on the ground were fully there and did try to talk to the people there. The churches have been talking about peace and harmony and cooperation. Everybody was helping and everyone was involved. This isn’t about a small community but about the whole country. We are in talks to help with the situation,” he said.

Aqeel found the Bishop’s claims a bit absurd. “You can see precisely how well they’ve performed! If they had been there at the time of the lynching, or if they had reached on Monday or even Tuesday things would’ve been different. Let’s assume they actually got there and responded timely then the question is why the mob was able to take things this far. They need to be asked that if they timely responded then how did this level of chaos take place? Two men were burned alive, public and private property was trashed, a woman nearly got killed… so much happened, how?”

“If they truly believe that they did the best they could then it perhaps means that people do not respect them either. That is the only conclusion that if they responded in a timely manner then in addition to not trusting the political leadership the religious leadership is also not trusted. If they did timely respond then what was the outcome, if there was no outcome then there isn’t much of a leadership,” he said.

As things stand the Christian community is in trouble. There is a social boycott taking place in Nishtar Colony and adjoining areas, some Muslims have even refused to sell vegetables to Christians.

Ishaq highlighted that most Christians are now living in fear of a backlash. “More than half of the Christian population of Youhanabad has fled for their lives. They believe that they will be attacked by Muslims from the surrounding areas as soon as the security officials depart. A lot of mistrust prevails on both sides.

“The Christian community is bowing its head in shame. These actions have nothing to do with Christian or human values. The culprits must be punished in accordance with the law. There are people who are highlighting the atrocities that Christians have suffered over the years but despite this no one thinks such violence can be justified. The law must prevail,” he said.

Aqeel felt that the Christian leadership needs to step up to defuse the situation and build trust. “The damage that we’ve seen happen now has never happened before. The Christians are not a strong community and even a small backlash will deal significant damage. The mob doesn’t represent the community at large. The message that Pakistani Christians hold no prejudice against Muslims needs to be disseminated and the Pakistani media needs to help with this instead of what they’re doing right now,” he said.

In the entire episode that has taken place, the double standards in how things are dealt with when Muslims are the victims are becoming obvious.

In this case the CM Punjab and Interior Minister have announced almost immediately that the culprits behind the deaths of the two men that were burned alive will be tried in a Military Court. No such news has surfaced regarding Shama and Shahzad, the young Christian couple that was burned alive in a brick kiln by a Muslim mob in Kot Radha Kishan last November.

Ishaq, however, will be using this in a positive manner as well.

“The case has had four hearings in the Supreme Court but the police is yet to satisfy the court about the progress in the case. So far they’ve only caught 90 out of the initial 164, but we need to keep in mind that the mob itself was 400-500 people strong. Another alarming problem is that the police are yet to produce any material evidence. There were three local Muslim clerics that were responsible for instigating the crowds. Two were caught and one is still at large. The court has now given a last change to the police to get the job done,” he informed.

“Our lawyer gave his own statement and said that the military courts were now becoming a reality and the case should be sent to those courts because the police were not cooperating. If the last hearing bears no fruit then our stance is that this case too should be sent to the Military Court. The fact that they’ve sent Youhanabad’s case to the Military Court is something that we plan on using to our advantage: the rules should be the same for everyone. Shama and Shahzad should also get the same kind of justice,” he added.

Both Aqeel and Ishaq believe that the government’s writ and the law need to be upheld. There were fears that things would flare up after Friday prayers. At present, there needs to be an emphasis on interfaith harmony, and people working within this domain need to up the ante on their efforts to ensure that this matter is resolved.

“For this to work it is imperative that our religious leaders get over their egos and work together. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again that the smaller churches need to be involved as well,” Ishaq said.

After the death of two men, the media and everyone else conveniently forgot the dozens of victims from the Christian community, and the threat that looms over their heads because of the actions of a few individuals.

“We have repeatedly condemned the unfortunate incident from various platforms but the electronic media has shied away from airing our side of the story. No one is talking about the people who died saving lives. No one is talking about the victims or the survivors. We expect a more balanced approach to the situation from our media friends.”

Unless all levels of leadership begin acting with responsibility, the situation for Christians and all other Non-Muslim and minority communities will only worsen.

Luavut Zahid

Luavut Zahid is Pakistan Today’s Special Correspondent. Her work places an emphasis on conflict and disasters, human rights, religious and sexual minorities, climate change, development and governance. She also serves as the Pakistan Correspondent to the Crisis Response Journal. She can be reached at: [email protected], and she tweets at: @luavut.