Arson Suspected in Church Fire in Pakistan

Threatening letter left at front gate.

Damage to Gulberg Presbyterian Church building, burned in Lahore, Pakistan on Nov 16, 2023. (Morning Star News)

Damage to Gulberg Presbyterian Church building, burned in Lahore, Pakistan on Nov. 16, 2023. (Morning Star News)

(Church elder Zubair Akhtar Khokhar confessed to setting the fire of the Gulberg Presbyterian Church in Lahore after police arrested him following the publication of this story, which follows in its original form. The updated story was published on Nov. 20, 2023))

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A church building was set on fire in Lahore, Pakistan on Thursday (Nov. 16), a month after the pastor received a letter threatening the congregation for worshipping too loudly, sources said.

The blaze destroyed the church altar, a cupboard containing Bibles and other Christian books, two air conditioning units and furniture, among other items, said the Rev. Samuel Massey of Gulberg Presbyterian Church in Lahore.

Efforts were underway to make the building for the church of 60 families soundproof for Christmas celebrations, as area Muslims had complained that the worship sound system was too loud. A church elder on Thursday opened the church building at 9:30 a.m., and 20 minutes after he left to meet a nearby carpenter, he learned that someone had set the structure on fire, Pastor Massey said.

“The fire was not accidental, nor had it erupted due to a short circuit,” the pastor told Morning Star News. “We suspect that someone entered the church when elder Zubair went to meet the carpenter. The intruders locked the main gate from the outside after committing the crime, and passersby and neighbors had to break open the padlock when they saw smoke billowing out of the church building.”

Thousands of Christians live alongside Muslims near the church building in Makkah Colony, and no churches were targeted in the area previously, he said.

“Both communities live in harmony and respect each other’s faiths,” Pastor Massey said. “However, two years ago a Muslim family that had moved into a nearby house filed a police complaint against the church to stop using the sound system during worship. I told the police that we used the sound system for two hours only on Friday and Sunday, and that we will make sure that our neighbors do not get disturbed by it.”

The church soon stopped its Friday worship meetings to avoid religious conflict, he said. But last month an Islamic group left a letter dated Oct. 14 by the main gate threatening the church with serious consequences if it did not comply with their order to reduce the sound system volume of the Sunday worship service, he said.

“The letter also mentioned the police complaint that was filed two years ago and stated that the matter had ‘now been brought to their notice’ because we had not adhered to the earlier warnings,” Pastor Massey said, adding that it gave the church 30 days to submit to the demand.

Not wanting to cause fear or unrest in the community, he did not report the threat to police or reveal it to the congregation, he said.

“The situation is already tense after the Jaranwala incident, and the issue of the staged assassination case of Pastor Eleazar Sidhu,” Pastor Massey said. “In these circumstances, I thought it was better not to disclose this threat and instead try to minimize the noise from our church.”

Church leaders have asked police to investigate the fire, and police have taken a video recording from CCTV cameras at the front entrance of the building.

“We are hoping that they will trace the perpetrators,” Pastor Massey said, though he said he still had not told officers about the threatening letter.

‘Evil Deed’

Area residents and shopkeepers said they saw a crowd gather outside the church building when it caught fire.

“We helped church members in breaking the padlock and extinguishing the fire,” Imran Mughal, a Muslim shopkeeper, told Morning Star News. “There are no apparent signs of short circuit in the building. Whoever is responsible for this evil deed must be punished, as they have tried to cause discord between the two communities.”

A church member identified only as Naseem said the sight of the charred building reminded her and others of church buildings and homes of Christians that were ransacked and burned by frenzied Muslim mobs in Jaranwala on Aug. 16.

“We had barely come out of the mental trauma caused by the attacks in Jaranwala when this happened,” Naseem told Morning Star News. “The condition of our church is distressing, but I trust the Lord will Himself avenge the desecration of His house.”

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2023 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, up from eighth the previous year.

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