A suspect has been arrested and charged with the burning of a Presbyterian church in Lahore, and the church’s pastor said the man is a senior member of the congregation.
“Police investigation has revealed that the arson incident at my church was not religiously motivated. The perpetrator had planned it to appear that way,” said Reverend Samuel Massey, the pastor-in-charge of the Gulberg Presbyterian Church in Lahore that was destroyed by a fire on the morning of November 16 (Thursday).
The accused, Zubair Akhtar Khokhar, served as treasurer of the church’s session and allegedly wanted to grab the pastor’s position.
“Zubair was taken into custody after footage retrieved from the church’s security cameras showed him entering and exiting the building at the time of the incident. No other person was seen entering the building after Zubair,” Massey said.
The priest said that Zubair confessed to the arson after police confronted him with the video evidence.
“Zubair also admitted that he had faked the threat letter from an Islamist group to scare me into quitting my position. When he failed to see the desired result, he decided to burn the church and pin the blame on the alleged Islamist outfit to show that the threat to my life was real,” said the pastor. The letter dated Oct 16, 2023, warned the congregation against worshipping too loudly.
Naseerabad police have registered a case against Zubair under Sections 295 and 436 of the Pakistan Penal Code, according to FIR No. [First Information Report] 3140/23.
Section 295 of the blasphemy statutes relates to “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs” and is punishable by three years imprisonment or fine, or both.
Section 436 states that “whoever commits mischief by fire or any explosive substance, intending to cause, or knowing it to be likely that he with thereby cause, the destruction of any building which is ordinarily used as a place of worship or as a human dwelling or as a place for the custody of property shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which shall not be less than three years nor more than ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.”
Rev Massey said that he and other church elders were shocked when police summoned them on Saturday and shared their findings.
“Zubair was questioned by the police on Friday night because he was the only person, who by his own admission, had unlocked the gate and after some time reported the fire incident to me on the phone,” Massey said.
The church pastor said that the session members were already wary of Zubair’s attitude and had limited his role in administrative matters. He, however, declined to say more, saying it was not right to speak against a church member.
“We are all deeply pained by this act but as Christians, we will continue to pray for God’s mercy for Zubair. He says he’s remorseful for what he has done but for now, the law will have to take its course,” said Rev Massey.
The blaze destroyed the church altar, a cupboard containing Bibles and other Christian books, two air conditioning units, and furniture, among other items, the pastor said.
Two years ago, a Muslim family had lodged a police complaint against the church to stop using the sound system during worship, but Rev Massey said that the administration had addressed the concern.
“Zubair was part of the session team that handled the issue at that time. He connected the recent events with that incident to give it a religious cover, which would have posed a serious threat to interfaith relations in the area,” he said.
‘SHAMEFUL, TO SAY THE LEAST’
Church and community leaders said the involvement of a congregation member in the arson incident had put Pakistani Christians in an embarrassing situation.
“It’s shameful, to say the least!” said Bishop Azad Marshall, the president of the Church of Pakistan.
The senior Anglican church leader said that like other community members, he too was saddened to learn about the church arson.
“Photos and videos of the charred Presbyterian church refreshed the memory of the burning churches and homes of Christians in Jaranwala that happened just three months ago.
“It’s a pity that some Christians are now faking persecution to achieve their personal objectives. They don’t realize that their actions are detrimental to the community’s security and undermine true persecution,” Marshall said.
According to Pak Mission Society’s Chief Officer Adeel Rehmat, the arson incident had further compromised the Christian narrative of religious persecution in Pakistan.
“There’s no denying that gross religious persecution happens in Pakistan but recent incidents are projecting the entire community in an entirely different light.
“The Jaranwala attacks took place when a Christian man desecrated the Quran to implicate two Christian brothers in a false blasphemy case. Thereafter, a Presbyterian pastor in the same area faked an assassination attempt by Islamist extremists for ulterior motives and now this Christian man has burned his own church and tried to give it religious color. We must condemn and discourage such lies and deceit otherwise the entire community will suffer its consequences,” he said.
Rehmat’s Pak Mission Society is a leading faith-based humanitarian organization that works for community development and strengthening of the church in Pakistan.
On Sept 29, police in Faisalabad charged Rev Eleazar Sidhu with making false allegations after he admitted that a gunshot wound he had blamed on Islamic extremists was self-inflicted.
Sidhu, pastor of the Presbyterian Myong-Sang Nasreth Church in Kukranwala village of Jaranwala had filed a case with police alleging that Muslim extremists on Sept. 3 ordered him to recite the Islamic creed and shot him when he refused.
Christian leaders said the pastor’s false allegation, followed by unwarranted activism by a handful of Christian rights advocates on social media, diverted attention from persecution in the Jaranwala riots and endorsed the claims of Islamist hardline groups that Christians were exploiting blasphemy cases to find asylum in western countries citing threats, persecution, and lack of security in Pakistan.