A mob of Muslim men opened fire on a Christian neighborhood, killing two brothers, after authorities in Pakistan’s Punjab province allowed Christians to lease a disputed piece of land, according to a report.
Yaqoob Masih and his brother, Haroon Masih, who were among five Christians who were visiting the property after being awarded the lease, were killed last Friday in Punjab’s Okara District, the U.S.-based persecution watchdog International Christian Concern reports.
“A Muslim family had religious hatred against us and other Christians living in the village,” Indriyas Masih, a witness and survivor of the attack, was quoted as saying. “They never like the development of Christians in the village and therefore opposed us in getting a contract for a piece of land for cultivation.”
Local Muslims were upset after the Christians applied to lease 6 acres of land for cultivation, Indriyas explained. After several months of arguments, local authorities settled the matter by allowing the Christians to lease the land.
“On the incident day, five of us went to the agricultural fields for irrigation work when a mob of over two dozen armed men attacked,” Indriyas added. “The attack resulted in the killing of Yaqoob and Haroon.”
Indriyas said he could identify nine people in the mob who shouted anti-Christian slogans as they opened fire on the five Christians.
Police registered a formal complaint, ICC said.
However, “the Christians are treated as slaves bounded to Muslims,” Asif Muniwar, a local human rights defender, explained. “Christians enjoy no rights, no dignity, and no protection in this country. The overall system of society is based on religious hatred against Christians and other minorities.”
ICC’s Regional Manager for South Asia, William Stark, called it “yet another incident of deadly violence motivated by the widespread intolerance that exists against Christians in Pakistan.”
“Pakistan must do more to combat the extremism and intolerance that motivates anti-Christian incidents like this,” Stark said. “No one should be treated as a second-class citizen simply because of the faith they profess. In Pakistan, however, the faith you profess drastically affects how you are treated by society.”
Last month, a group of heavily armed Muslim men fired bullets indiscriminately at a church and Christians’ homes, wounding at least four Christians, including a six-month pregnant woman, in Lahore city in Punjab, according to a report.
Attorney Javed Gill, a senior leader of the Christian Lawyers Association of Pakistan, said there were conflicting reports about the motive for the firing.
“Several residents have claimed that the accused were opposed to the presence of a church in the locality and had been pressuring them to stop worship there, while some are saying that the incident was an outcome of a dispute over a girl,” Gill was quoted as saying. “Nonetheless, even if it was a dispute between two people, how can anyone justify the targeting of the entire Christian neighborhood with automatic weapons?”
An estimated 1.6% of Pakistan’s 17 million people are Christian, both Catholic and Protestant. Around 97% of the Pakistanis are Muslim, predominantly Sunni.
International persecution watchdog group Open Doors USA ranks Pakistan at No. 5 on its 2021 World Watch List of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution due to an “extreme” level of Islamic oppression. Pakistan is also listed by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for tolerating in or engaging in egregious violations of religious freedom.