Arson suspected in Lahore church fire

    A church was allegedly set ablaze by unknown assailants on Thursday, a month after its pastor received a letter from a shadowy group that warned him to turn down the volume of the sound system during Sunday service, sources said.

    Reverend Samuel Massey of the Gulberg Presbyterian Church in Lahore said that he was shocked when he got a call from the church’s treasurer, Elder Zubair, who told him that the church was ablaze.

    “Zubair said that he had opened the church in the morning at around 9.30 am and then went to meet a carpenter who lived on the same street. Shortly after, he heard people screaming that the church was on fire.

    “The inferno devoured the altar, a cupboard containing Bibles and other holy books, two air conditioning units, and furniture among other items,” said Rev Massey.

    The pastor said that the church had been freshly painted this week and they were working to make the hall soundproof as part of Christmas preparations. The church congregation consisted of 60 families, he added.

    “The fire was not accidental or caused by a short circuit. We suspect that someone slipped into the church when Elder Zubair went to meet the carpenter and locked the main gate from the outside after igniting the fire,” he said.

    The Gulberg Presbyterian Church is located on Street No. 3 of the Makkah Colony, a densely populated area in Lahore. Thousands of Christians live in the locality alongside Muslims and this is reportedly the first time that a church has been attacked there.

    “We have never faced any such issue in the past. Both communities live in harmony and respect each other’s faiths. However, two years ago a Muslim family filed a police complaint against the church to stop it from 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 we would make sure that our neighbors did not get disturbed by it.

    “We even stopped our Friday worship meetings and restricted the use of the sound system to Sunday service only,” he said, explaining that the decision was taken to avoid religious tension in the area.

    Massey said the issue resurfaced one month ago when a church elder placed a handwritten note in front of him during Sunday service that he had found lying near the main gate.

    The letter dated Oct 14, 2023, purportedly written by an unknown group – Islamic Inqilabi Force or Islamic Revolutionary Force – threatened the church with dire consequences if it did not comply with their order to limit the volume of the sound system during Sunday service.

    “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 followed the earlier warnings,” said Massey. He added that the church was given a 30-day deadline to submit to the demand.

    The pastor said that he did not report the threat to police or share it with the congregation because he did not want to cause fear and unrest in the community.

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

    Although the pastor has filed a complaint with the police, he has surprisingly made no mention of the threat in it.

    “We have asked the police to investigate the incident. We have installed two CCTV cameras on the main entrance of the church and the police have taken the DVR with them for inspection. We hope that they will trace the perpetrators,” he said, failing to explain why he had withheld the important information from the police.

    On Aug 16, violent mobs incited by an extremist religious party attacked churches and homes of Christian residents in Jaranwala tehsil in Faisalabad district after two Christian brothers were accused of blasphemy.

    Multiple churches were set on fire and homes and businesses of Christians were ransacked for hours while police were silent spectators, triggering condemnation across the world.

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