DHAIR, Pakistan — It was a quiet February morning when the mob of men in green turbans came surging through the alleys of a run-down Christian neighborhood in this town outside Lahore. Some carried cans of fuel. They were hunting for a young man named Patras Masih, and they were in a state of frenzy.
“They were shouting and breaking things. They said to hand him over or we will burn the whole community down,” recounted Sana, 28, a neighbor whose front door was kicked in and whose TV and washing machine were smashed.
By then, most other residents had fled, warned by police to evacuate the area that day. They were coming to arrest the illiterate janitor, 20, on charges of blasphemy, accompanied by a group of Islamist activists. He was away at work, so the police detained several of his relatives as insurance and departed, along with the vigilantes.
Today, Masih is awaiting trial in prison for having allegedly shared an image on Facebook Messenger of an unidentified man standing triumphantly atop the prophet Muhammad’s tomb. His family is in hiding, along with his cousin Sajid Masih, 26, who jumped from a fourth-story window while being questioned at a police building and nearly died of his injuries.
The case illustrates the growing reach and aggressiveness of Pakistan’s once-obscure anti-blasphemy movement, which has gained wide support since staging a three-week protest outside the capital, Islamabad, in November. The group filed the original complaint against Masih and was treated deferentially by the police. Leaders of the area’s minority Christians are beginning to fear they are no longer safe.
“Our life is over,” said Masih’s father, Inderias, sitting despondently in a legal rights office in Lahore on Sunday. Even if Patras Masih is found innocent and released, his father said, “we will always be afraid someone will attack us. No one accused of blasphemy is ever safe.”
The Movement in Service to the Sanctity of the Prophet, formed several years ago, has caught fire across Pakistan, its emerald banners rippling from rooftops and taxis. Rather than advocating an extreme ideology or terrorist tactics, it calls on ordinary Muslims to “defend” deeply held principles, especially reverence for the prophet Muhammad.
Government officials, almost all Muslim, have struggled to curb religious rabble-rousing without being seen as insufficiently devout. Many privately sympathize with the anti-blasphemy cause; some who try to mend fences have been humiliated. On Sunday, former prime minister Nawaz Sharif spoke at a Sunni seminary in Lahore, but two people from the audience threw shoes at him. One shouted exultantly, “We are here, oh, prophet!”
Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous and wealthy province, is also the home of Sharif’s ruling party and half a dozen Islamist groups. In September, the anti-blasphemy group and a second religious party ran test candidates in a legislative race there, and observers say it could become a key battleground in their bid to influence the national elections later this year.
The region is also home to the country’s largest concentration of Christians, who constitute about 10 percent of the populace. Until now, the anti-blasphemy forces had focused on condemning Ahmedis, another minority religious group, but Christians have come under attack before, and activists said that blasphemy accusations against them are growing.
“This was never our war. We have much in common with Muslims, and when problems arose, we have always tried to settle things informally,” said Mary Gill, a Christian member of the Punjab provincial legislature. “We are not against the blasphemy law. We just want to prevent its misuse.”
Leaders of the anti-blasphemy group in Lahore did not respond to requests for comment, but several members said they bore no ill will toward Christians. “All should be free to pray, to live,” one said. “Our goal is to see sharia fully implemented, but respect for Christians is obligatory.”
But activists cited several cases of false blasphemy accusations and mob violence against Christians, provoked by rumors or disputes. An elderly villager was accused and attacked after he refused to sell his house in a Muslim area. A couple was burned alive in a brick factory oven after word spread that they had burned pages of the Koran.
In the Masih case, the anti-blasphemy group filed formal charges that he had shared the image mocking the prophet’s tomb with friends in a Facebook Messenger group. Police told Pakistani media that Masih had confessed under questioning and apologized.
But the family and their lawyer told a different story. They described a complex conspiracy that involved Muslim youths who fought with Masih at a cricket match, a cellphone shop owner who belonged to the anti-blasphemy group and a local landowner who wanted to drive out low-income Christian squatters.
“There are conspiracies through the whole story,” said the lawyer, Aneeqa Anthony. “This is a very emotional issue, and people in mobs don’t pay attention to facts; they just know they have been told that blasphemy has occurred, and they want someone to be hanged for it.”
Anthony said officers of the Federal Investigative Agency falsely accused Masih of sharing the offensive image on Jan. 16, a date when his cellphone was at the repair shop. She also said he could not read or write but put his thumbprint on a written confession after being beaten in custody.
The abusive treatment of Sajid Masih, she said, was far worse. Her office has filed charges accusing investigators of beating him, then ordering him to perform a sex act on Patras Masih before he leaped out the window. The agency insists that Sajid Masih jumped out of panic that they would find deleted blasphemous photos on his cellphone, but it is also conducting an internal investigation.
Sajid Masih’s account, on a video recorded at his hospital bedside, is barely audible. His face is swollen and bruised, but his words are clear enough. “They told me to curse Patras,” he says in the recording. “They told me to take off his pants and do sex with him. I asked forgiveness and said he is my brother. They told me to take off my pants. I saw the window was open, and I jumped.”
In Shahdara, the crowded working-class district where Dhair is located, pockets of Christians have coexisted with Muslims for decades. At the end of one alley, a tall steel gate with a guard tower stands outside St. Luke’s Catholic Church.
On Sunday, the pews were crammed for communion and hymns in Urdu, accompanied on a handheld harmonium. Older congregants said they had worshiped there for years without incident, but Rafael Mehnga, the priest, said tensions had been rising since the November protests.
“The issue of blasphemy has become highlighted and more sensitive now,” he said. “If it is misused, if neighbors start to doubt, it can be a danger to every citizen. There is no threat to their religion. But in the name of it, they are creating a threat.”
In the twisting alleys of Dhair, Christian residents said they had no animosity toward Muslims and respected Islam. No one rose to Masih’s defense. A Muslim horse cart driver, chatting with a Christian teacher, said somewhat heatedly that Masih should be punished if found guilty, and his family, too.
The teacher nodded, then spoke quietly: “Yes, but not all Christians.”