KARACHI: Thousands of angry protesters on Saturday set ablaze more than 100 houses of Pakistani Christians over a blasphemy row in the eastern city of Lahore, officials said.
Hundreds of people besieged the colony and about a hundred houses were burnt or ransacked in the Badami Bagh area, part of old city.
Police sources said that Sawan Maseeh, a 26-year Christian allegedly made derogatory remarks that angered the Muslim residents of the neighbourhood. The police took the man in custody and moved him to a secure place.
However, the unruly crowd carrying sticks and stones attacked the homes of Christians. A church was also partially damaged, sources said.
The police called the Imam of Badshahi Mosque, a historical mosque built by the Mughals, to appease the agitating crowd. The situation came under control after the Imam made the appeal to disperse peacefully.
The television footage showed angry people burning tires, motorcycles and other combustible material on the streets of the Christian colony and fire erupting from the houses.
Police said protesters burnt 25 houses but Dr Ahmad Raza, in-charge of local rescue operations, and the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) put the number at more than 100.
“At least 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were burnt by protesters,” Raza, who was busy in rescue operations in the area, told AFP.
Expressing grief and anger at the attack, HRCP chairwoman Zohra Yusuf put the number of houses burnt during the protest at over 100.
Police baton-charged the protesters to disperse them from the neighbourhood. There was no loss of life reported during the violence but 20 policemen were slightly injured during clashes, officials said.
President Asif Ali Zardari and chief minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif took notice of the incident. Riot police which reached the scene was also attacked by the angry protesters and the officer who was in charge along with another officer sustained injuries.
The provincial government of Punjab confessed its failure saying that it was responsible for the protection and safety of the minority Christians.
The provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said that the attackers would be arrested and punished strictly in accordance with the law. The law minister pledged to compensate the losses of the Christian community.
“There was no legal, moral or religious justification to commit such an inhuman reaction by the people,” Sanaullah said.
An account of the incident suggested that the Christian youth, when he was drunk, had made some blasphemous remarks, against Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). A police report was registered but today tens of hundreds people attacked the Christians who managed to flee.
Religious scholars condemned the incident.
“This is shameful, barbaric and inhuman,” said Allama Tahir Ashrafi, a religious scholar and member of the state-run Islamic Ideology Council.
“The Prophet himself commanded protection, safety, and peace to the minority and this is the responsibility of the Muslims,” Allama Ashrafi said.
Death sentence is handed down if the blasphemy is proven, under the Pakistani law. However, the liberals and progressive contest the law and demand amendments, saying it was being exploited by the Muslims to settle their personal enmities.