Did the attack occur just because he and his neighbors are Christians? Kala Jee Allah Ditta is crouching on the remains of his home in the Pakistani community of Badami Bagh, near Lahore’s landmark railway station. All that remains of the boundary wall is a jagged edge at each end. Broken masonry is strewn around him, along with broken doors and crumpled sheets of metal. The small, three-room home he shared with six other relatives is deeply charred. The flames melted the blades of the ceiling fan, leaving the mounting device dangling awkwardly on its own. Below, broken bits of cups and plates are strewn across the floor. In a corner, a faint curl of smoke still rises from a pile of broken wood.
(PHOTOS: In Pakistan, Christians Come Under Attack Again)
The scene is depressingly reminiscent of an earlier tragedy. In 2009, a group of masked gunmen went door-to-door setting fire to homes and churches in a similar clustered and overcrowded colony of small, red brick Christian homes in the town of Gojra, which like Badami Bagh is in the Pakistani province of Punjab. They poured chemicals over 45 homes and three churches before setting them ablaze. The smell lingered for days — the same smell that remains pungent in Badami Bagh.
Then, as now, the attack was sparked by rumors of blasphemy — the bane of Pakistani politics and jurisprudence in recent years. Both times, the police failed to protect the Christians, or even stood aside. The sole mercy for the Christian residents of Badami Bagh is that they were able to get away the night before. In Gojra, nine people were killed. The Badami Bagh incident, however, has its own set of local complications — including, it seems, the politics of a local steel-traders’ elections. Beset on several fronts, the Christians also fear that there may be forces trying to force them out in order to grab their property.
On Friday night, Kala Jee and the other residents in the area were told to flee. “The police came and told us to go away,” he says. “A big, angry crowd had gathered on the main road. They had sticks and chains with them. We left and spent the next two nights with families that lived elsewhere.” Once the community had been emptied of its residents, the crowd returned the next day, Saturday, looting, destroying and torching some 150 homes and at least two churches. On Sunday, the residents returned to survey the ruin.
(MORE: Pakistan’s Literary Festivals: A Troubled Country’s New Soft Power)
According to the Christians, the conflagration was sparked, some days earlier, with a quarrel between two old friends. Sahwan Masih was a 26-year-old Christian who was popular in his area for his billiard table. During the day, he worked nearby, as sanitation worker for the municipal authority. “When he would finish work at 3 or 4 in the afternoon,” says his younger brother, Sabir, “he and his friend Imran would sit together and drink together.” Imran, a Muslim known in the area as both Mohammed Imran and Shahid Imran, had a barbershop on the main road, just opposite Masih’s home.
Last Wednesday, according to Sabir and others, as the two friends sipped some hooch brewed locally, the conversation apparently turned toward each other’s religions. It isn’t clear what was said. Accounts within the community differ. “Imran called Sahwan a choora,” says Amir Gill, a pastor and local resident who says he witnessed the argument. The word is a pejorative used to insult members of Punjab’s Christian community, who suffer from as much a caste prejudice as a religious one. In Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and wealthiest province, most of the Christians are evangelical converts, formerly low-caste Hindus who were branded as “dirty” by Pakistani bigots. Many are able to find work only as sanitation workers, menial jobs reserved for those at the bottom of the social ladder.
(MORE: How Malala Yousafzai May Affect Pakistan’s Violent Culture Wars)
The residents in the area don’t know what Masih said exactly in reply. Gill, who works in a government department during the day and serves his evangelical local community in the evening, said he heard Masih saying something about “getting back at Imran and his Muslims.” Word of the exchange seems to have traveled through the local area over the next couple of days. A friend of Imran’s known as Chico Shafiq then apparently attempted to avenge the alleged insult. He took large dagger, residents say, and waited outside Masih’s home, demanding he come out.
It was at this time that the local steel-trading community allegedly got involved. The Badami Bagh area is famous for its many steel mills. Sprawling compounds produce endless steel beams and rods that are then stacked high on the back of brightly painted trucks and delivered to construction sites across Punjab. The local bosses of the area are having election. Vast billboards with unsmiling mustachioed men running for president and other posts bear down from most buildings’ walls in the area.
Somehow, the blasphemy allegation turned into a campaign issue, the residents say, because the accusation always has popular resonance — and little opposition. In Pakistan, few dare counter allegations of blasphemy for fear of being denounced as blasphemers themselves. “On Friday, the candidates announced a strike after Friday prayers,” says Gill. The crowd was a mix, Gill and other residents say, of Muslim worshippers emptying out of a local mosque, a gang of boys and supporters of the candidates standing for the steel-traders’ elections. “Sever the head of the blasphemer” was one of the slogans they were chanting, says Gill. The police in the area staved off the attacks the first night. But they offered little resistance on Saturday morning, when another strike was called and the door-to-door attacks began through an emptied Badami Bagh.
(MORE: Behind the Story: TIME’s Krista Mahr Discusses the Effects of a New Trade Agreement Between Pakistan and India)
In chilling photographs taken during the assault, a group of teenage boys is seen attacking the homes in the Christian colony. In some of the shots, they pose defiantly for the camera, some wearing triumphant grins and holding aloft sticks, as a bright fire blazes behind them. In other photographs, they can be seen splashing chemicals from bottles and containers onto already raging flames. The flammable chemicals, says Sajjad Mushtaq, 25, another local resident, appear to have come from the local steel mills. Another resident produces two blackened plastic bottles that apparently contained chemicals that were hurled into his home. Last Christmas, adds Mushtaq, a gang apparently made up of the most of the same teenage boys went to the colony to taunt and threaten residents celebrating the holiday.
Outside Masih’s home on the main road, a crowd of Christian protesters has formed. They demand that he be released. The police say they have taken him into “protective custody,” but few Christians accused of blasphemy ever manage to secure a release. “I want my son back, please bring my son back,” wails Zahida Parveen, Masih’s mother. The combination of pressure from angry mobs, threats from local clerics and a paralyzing fear among politicians and judges means an individual can be charged with blasphemy on little or no evidence — a charge that carries the death penalty.
Elsewhere in Lahore on Sunday, members of the Christian community, calling attention to their latest tragedy, blocked two main roads. They are emulating Pakistan’s Shi‘ite population, who earlier took to the streets after three major attacks this year. One banner reads: “Who Will Protect Us?” In what is becoming one of the bloodiest years for Pakistan’s long-suffering religious minorities, no one seems to have an answer.