The terrified couple clung to each other inside their one-room home while the mob of angry Muslims outside shouted insults and threats: “They have burned the Holy Koran! We will teach them a lesson!” Shama cried as her husband, Shahzad, tightened his arms around her and began to pray.
At 6am, more than 500 Muslims had gathered outside the young couple’s home near the brick kiln where they worked as bonded labourers. Shama’s husband couldn’t believe the events of the last few months had come to this.
Shahzad, his father and four brothers moved to the brick kiln near Kot Radha Kishan, Pakistan in 2000 when Shahzad was 16. As poor Christians (Pakistan’s lowest social class), they had few employment options. While the work in a brick kiln was gruelling, it at least provided them food and a place to sleep. However, as often occurs with poor Christians in Pakistan, the family soon became indebted to the brick kiln owner. The debts are eventually passed on to the children, indenturing many families for life.
Although Shahzad’s family was Christian, his father, Nazar, became friends with Muslims living near the kiln. He often read the Koran with them and even practised some Muslim rituals, so many locals assumed he had converted to Islam.
In 2006, Shahzad married Shama, a dedicated Christian. They prayed together morning and evening and met for prayer twice a month with the other 10 Christian families working at the kiln.
Shama urged her father-in-law to stop practising Muslim rituals. “We are sons and daughters of God,” she told him. “Give up this work, and pray to the Lord for forgiveness.” Finally, in 2013, he stopped the Muslim rituals and told everyone of his love for Jesus Christ.
The change in Nazar did not go unnoticed in the community, and some thought Shama had converted Nazar from Islam to Christianity. Many at the kiln, including the owner and his clerk, already resented Shama because she did not work in the kiln. Shahzad would not let her because he was afraid the men would take advantage of her.
Beaten for not coming to work
In October 2014, Nazar became very ill. When the kiln owner refused to give Shahzad and his brothers a loan for medical treatment, they were forced to take their sick father to a government hospital in Lahore, where he could be treated for free. Shahzad missed several days of work, and his father died at the end of October. When Shahzad returned home, the kiln owner and clerk beat Shahzad severely for not coming to work at the kiln.
Shahzad and Shama decided they could no longer live or work at the kiln. “Tell us how much money we owe you,” they told the owner. “We will return it and leave your brick kiln.”
The owner and clerk didn’t want the Christian couple to go free so they devised an evil scheme. They knew that accusing them of desecrating a Koran would get them beaten, jailed or even worse under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
The four-hour attack
At 5:30am on 4 November, the clerk and a few Muslim men from the kiln went to the leader of the local mosque and reported to him that the Christian couple had burned a Koran. The mosque leader then announced the offence to the village over a loudspeaker, and a mob immediately began to surround Shahzad and Shama’s home.
The terrified couple locked their door as the crowd shouted for their death and banged viciously against their door. Some members of the mob climbed up and tore a hole in the thatch roof so they could drop down into the room and unlock the door. They dragged the couple out of the house and the mob began to beat them. Then they took them to the office of the brick kiln clerk, where the owner and clerk beat them again. Shahzad and Shama pleaded for their lives, but the beating continued even though Shama was pregnant with their fourth child.
After beating the couple so badly that their legs were broken, the enraged Muslims tied them behind a tractor and dragged them around the kiln yard for more than 30 minutes. The crowd jeered, and Shahzad’s family members watched in horror. All the while, messages of hate droned from the mosque loudspeaker as the leader announced that the Christian couple must be taught a lesson.
When the tractor driver saw that Shahzad and Shama were unconscious, he drove toward the brick kiln ovens. The angry mob stuffed their bodies into the vent holes above the oven. Later, autopsy reports would show that both of them had burned to death, having been alive when stuffed into the vents. The attack lasted four hours.
No evidence of Koran burning
Although local police were present during the attack, they did nothing to stop it. However, they did later arrest 76 people in connection with the murders and they registered a case against more than 400 people involved. All of those arrested were denied bail and are being held until trial, including the brick kiln owner and clerk.
The police also noted that there was no evidence that Shama or Shahzad had burned any part of a Koran. Muslim politicians, including the area’s Member of Parliament, strongly condemned the murders.
The Pakistani government promised to provide financially for the couple’s children and relatives, and it has. Shahzad and Shama’s three children, aged six, four and one, are living with their grandfather in another village. Our VOM workers continue to visit and check on their welfare.
Today, thousands of Christians continue their work at brick kilns throughout Pakistan. They are our brothers and sisters, faithful to the Lord even in the fiercest trials. They need our encouragement and prayers.
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