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Pakistan: Priest accuses Plaza owner Sheikh Ahmed of setting a temple-turned-church on fire, accuses police of protecting him

Alphonse added, “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.”

In a major development following a fire incident at a church in Rawalpindi, the local Christian community and the priest stated that it was a case of arson. They reported that some unknown miscreants had set the building on fire in the early hours of the day. They have charged a local Muslim businessman Sheikh Ahmed for setting the church on fire as he had been eyeing to include the church building in his under-construction Plaza and had recently threatened them.  

Notably, a fire incident was reported at a Presbyterian church in Rawalpindi’s Gujar Khan area on 30th March 2024. The incident occurred just hours before the local Christian community was scheduled to hold Easter services at the location. Following the incident, Police claimed that their initial investigation showed the fire was caused due to a “short-circuit”. 

Speaking with Dawn, Rawalpindi CPO Khalid Mahmood Hamdani said that they did not find any inflammable material on the spot. However, the local Christian community and the Church priest protested against the Police’s assertion. They stated that unknown miscreants had torched the church in a pre-dawn attack. 

According to the local Christian community, they had an altercation with their neighbouring Plaza-owner who had threatened them that he would not let them hold Easter services. As per the congregation, the Muslim businessman Sheikh Ahmed or his henchman had gutted the church to include the building in his under-development Plaza. 

The Rev. Adeem Alphonse is the priest of the United Presbyterian Junior Church in Gujar Khan tehsil. He said, “Our church was targeted around 3 a.m. on Saturday. The huge fire burned everything inside the church, including holy books, the sound system, furniture, curtains, etc.” 

He charged the Rawalpindi police and local administration with protecting the accused by claiming that it was an incident caused by ‘short-circuiting’. 

Alphonse added, “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.”

Sheikh Ahmed had threatened them, Police declined to name him in the FIR: Local Christian community

Pastor Alphonse emphasised that 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.

According to the Pastor, Ahmed had disrupted the church’s Good Friday service and tore down tent coverings set up outside the building. 

Speaking with Christian Daily International-Morning Star News, Pastor Alphonse recalled the incident saying, “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.” 

He added, “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.”

He pointed out that Ahmed, who earlier ran a construction supply company, has been eying on the property that the church leases from the government.

As per reports, after the fire was doused, the pastor and church officials learned that the fire had started from the wooden door of the main church hall. 

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

Additionally, when the Church member Javed Masih filed a police complaint and named Ahmed as an accused, Police officers declined to book him in the First Information Report (FIR). They also went on to claim that the fire was caused by a short-circuit, the pastor noted.

Pastor Alphonse said, “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.” It has been allotted to the church on a rental basis.

Rampant attacks on Minorities including Christians in Pakistan

Other community members also highlighted the rampant attack on the Christian community in Pakistan including the Jaranwala attack

They urged the administration and police to consider the just demand of the church management and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice no matter how influential they may be, as per reports.

Last year in August, 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. 

As per sources, while the police had detained more than 300 suspects after the attacks, a majority of them walked free on bail because of defective investigations and other reasons. 

The local Christian community fears that the Police is protecting the suspect Sheikh Ahmed by giving the incident of arson a different spin and blaming ‘short-circuit’ for the gutting of the Church building, which was once a Hindu temple before partition. Pakistan has been notorious for downplaying the extremist attacks on institutions including religious places of minorities including Hindus and Christians.  

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