Arson Suspected in Church Fire in Pakistan

Muslim threatened congregation would not celebrate Easter.

The Rev. Adeem Alphonse (c) and others demand justice after fire at church building in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Pakistan on March 30, 2024. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

The Rev. Adeem Alphonse (c) and others demand justice after fire at church building in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Pakistan on March 30, 2024. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Christian Daily InternationalMorning Star News) – Christians suspect a Muslim who vowed to keep them from celebrating Easter was behind a fire allegedly set to their church building on Saturday (March 30) in Rawalpindi District, Pakistan.

The Rev. Adeem Alphonse of the United Presbyterian Junior Church in Gujar Khan tehsil said the fire in the pre-dawn hours burned everything inside his church’s building.

“Our church was targeted around 3 a.m. on Saturday,” Pastor Alphonse said. “The huge fire burned everything inside the church, including holy books, the sound system, furniture and curtains, etc. We strongly suspect that it’s a case of arson, but the police and administration are trying to hush up the matter by terming it an outcome of a short-circuit in the electricity wiring.”

The congregation suspects a Muslim businessman, identified only as Sheikh Ahmed, who publicly threatened that he would not let them hold an Easter service, as he has been trying to force them to leave in order to add the property to an adjacent plaza he is developing, Pastor Alphonse said.

Ahmed disrupted the church’s Good Friday service when he tried to tear down tent coverings set up outside the building, the pastor said.

“When the police stopped Ahmed from causing unrest, he threatened our church elders that he will not let us have Easter service at any cost,” Pastor Alphonse told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “We resumed our Good Friday service thinking that the police would talk sense into him, but I was shocked when I received a telephone call the same night that my church was burning.”

Charred interior of church building burned in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Pakistan on March 30, 2024. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

Charred interior of church building burned in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi District, Pakistan on March 30, 2024. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

Ahmed, who previously ran a construction supply company, has long had an eye on the property that the church leases from the government, he said.

“When I reached the church, firefighters were engaged in dousing the fire while a huge police contingent was also present there,” said the pastor, who lives in Rawalpindi, 55 kilometers (34 miles) from the church site.

A Muslim pharmacy owner who saw the flames had called the firefighters, he said. After they doused the fire, the pastor and some church elders noticed it had started from the wooden door of the main church hall.

“Everything inside was reduced to ashes,” Pastor Alphonse said. “When we checked the electricity wiring, we did not see any signs of a short-circuit.”

Church elder Javed Masih filed a police complaint naming Ahmed as a suspect, but officers failed to include Ahmed’s name in the First Information Report (FIR), which claimed the fire was caused by short-circuit, he said.

City Police Officer Rawalpindi Syed Khalid Mehmood Hamdani said in a press statement that the fire was caused by a short circuit. Investigations were continuing, and police will release a final report after a detailed forensic examination, he said.

Police attempts to favor Ahmed triggered a protest by Christians who demanded a transparent investigation.

Pastor Alphonse’s church has 265 members, most of them poor, he said.

“Despite their meager resources, the congregation pooled funds and recently installed a new ceiling in the hall and bought a sound system, which have now been gutted by the fire,” he said.

His congregation initially sought to hold their Easter service in the street to register their protest against police inaction, but relented after Gujar Khan Assistant Commissioner Murad Hussain Nekokara assured them the incident would be fairly investigated.

“We held our Easter service in the basement hall of the Jinnah Hotel,” Pastor Alphonse said. “They were initially reluctant to give us the hall due to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan but eventually agreed. Though we were able to have our Easter service, our hearts are deeply saddened by the destruction of our church, and we want justice from the government.”

Adeel Rehmat, senior leader of the Presbyterian church and Chief Executive Officer of development organization Pak Mission Society, said the incident shocked Christians across Pakistan.

“Many Christians celebrated Easter with somber hearts,” Rehmat told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “We are still reeling from the memory of the Jaranwala attacks, and now this incident has caused us pain on such an auspicious occasion. The administration and police must consider the just demand of the church management and ensure that the perpetrators, if any, are brought to justice no matter how influential they may be.”

Pastor Alphonse said the church building on the main Grand Trunk Highway has been serving local Christians since the creation of Pakistan in 1947.

“The building was previously used as a Hindu temple, but the Pakistani government allocated the building to Christians after the Partition, when the area’s Hindu community chose to migrate to India,” he said.

He was appointed pastor of the church eight years ago, after the death of his father, who had led the church for more than 22 years.

“The property is owned by the Auqaf Department of the Punjab government, and it has been allotted to us on rental basis,” he said.

On Aug. 16, more than 20 church buildings and at least 80 homes of Christians were ransacked and burned by Muslim mobs in Jaranwala after two Christian brothers were falsely accused of desecrating the Quran and writing blasphemous comments against Islam’s prophet, Muhammad.

Police detained more than 300 suspects after the attacks, but a majority of them have walked free on bail due to defective investigations and other reasons, source said.

Pakistan ranked seventh on Open Doors’ 2024 World Watch List of the most difficult places to be a Christian, as it was the previous year.

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