Christian family forced off farmland they leased

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Police in Pakistan are refusing to arrest Muslims who attacked a Christian family and seized

Muslims attacked Ashraf Yousaf and his land in Toba Tek Singh District, Punjab Province, Pakistan on April 16, 2024. (Christian Daily International-Morning Star News)

their farm land, and officers also damaged property, sources said.

Shahnaz Yousaf, a resident of Chak GB village, Punjab Province, said that dozens of armed Muslims led by local landlords Atif Ali, Khawar Ali and Baber Ali attacked her family as they were harvesting their wheat crop on April 16.

Her father, Yousaf Masih, had obtained the 10.6-acre parcel on lease from the government in 1989, and the family has invested much money and work to make it cultivable, Shahnaz Yousaf said. Area Muslims became jealous and began plotting to deprive the family of their livelihood, she said.

The land was their only source of livelihood, but after they were unable to pay the lease amount for some years, in March 2023 a senior revenue official directed them to pay 3.5 million rupees (US$13,000) to retain the land – 2.1 million rupees (US$7,300) upfront and the remaining amount in installments, she said.

“It was not easy to gather such a big amount on such short notice, yet we sold all our valuable possessions to pay the lease amount within the given deadline,” Yousaf said.

Months passed without any issue, but in November her brothers learned that the landlords had persuaded the local assistant commissioner to include their parcel in an auction. The family filed an injunction order against the proposed auction with the Lahore High Court, which it granted.

“Despite the court’s order, the assistant commissioner leased the land in the name of Atif Ali, the son of Babar Ali,” Yousaf said. “We came to know of this shadowy auction a week later when police and revenue department officials arrived on the site and destroyed the fodder that we had cultivated for our cattle. We pleaded with them to stop and even showed them the court’s order, but they refused to listen to us.”

The family filed a complaint in the commissioner’s office the same day, and he permitted them to continue cultivating the land, she said.

“During this time, we were continuously harassed and threatened by police officials and henchmen of the landlords to vacate the land,” Yousaf said.

On Feb. 6, two days before general elections, the Muslims again threatened her brother, Ashraf Yousaf, she said.

“He immediately called the police helpline, but we were shocked when a police team, instead of arresting the perpetrators, stormed our house and damaged household items,” Shahnaz Yousaf, in tears, told Christian Daily International-Morning Star News. “They took me to the police station and kept me in illegal detention for more than two hours.”

Shahnaz said that the police told her brothers she would be freed only after they agreed to vacate the land.

“I was finally allowed to go home after the village headman intervened on our behalf,” she said.

Ashraf Yousaf said the Muslims continued to intimidate and harass the family, filing fake cases against them and damaging their crops.

“We have no experience of legal matters, as we only focused on our agricultural work and never got involved in fights with others,” he said. “But in the last few months, we have realized that we are not equals in the eyes of the law.”

Ashraf Yousaf said that he was working in the fields on April 16 when the Muslims arrived in groups. They were armed with guns, batons and other weapons and had also brought along a wheat-harvesting machine, he said.

“When I tried to stop them, reminding them of the court’s stay order, they attacked me and started hitting me with their guns and batons,” Ashraf Yousaf said. “Seeing the commotion, my two brothers and both sisters ran towards me to save me from the attack, but the attackers targeted them as well, resulting in several bone fractures and other injuries to all of us.”

They also seized his sister’s mobile phone as she was trying to record the assault and tore her clothes, he said.

The assailants fled before a police team arrived, he said. Officers told them to get medical treatment for their injuries and go to the police station, where they would also call the other party to settle the matter.

“However, when we went to the town for medical treatment, the Muslims returned to the fields, harvested our wheat crop and stole the entire produce,” Ashraf Yousaf said. “When we reached the police station and told them what had happened in our absence, the officer on duty refused to register our complaint and said that our plight will end only when we surrender to the demand of the Muslim landowners.”

The family also faced several difficulties in obtaining their medico-legal reports from the local government hospital.

“It seems that the entire system is working against us,” he said. “After much efforts and pleading, we finally got our medical reports, but the police delayed the registration of an FIR [First Information Report] for 10 days. Our FIR was registered on April 25, but the police made no effort to arrest the accused persons.”

Four days later, the Christian family learned that the Muslims had registered a fake case against them, alleging that they had injured someone, he said.

“We have lost everything, our livelihood, our money and most of all the hope of getting justice,” Ashraf Yousaf said. “We are financially drained, as whatever money we were left with is being spent on the treatment of our injuries.”

The family has appealed to the Punjab Province chief minister, senior police officials and Christian leaders to intervene and address their legitimate grievances, he said.

“We are weak and helpless people, but the local police are siding with the influential accused instead of supporting us,” Ashraf Yousaf said. “We desperately need help and support from our Christian leadership, as there’s no one else we can turn to in this very difficult time.”

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. — Morning Star News

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