AN accusation of blasphemy made by a Muslim barber against a Christian in Pakistan led today to the torching in Lahore of more than more than 100 houses of belonging to Pakistani Christians.
According to this report, over 3,000 Muslim protesters went apeshit over alleged derogatory remarks made against the “prophet” Mohammed by Sawan Masih, 28. The exact number of houses set fire to in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Badami Bagh area, was not immediately known.
Police and rescue officials said they belonged to low to middle-class families from the minority community.
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have ordered an immediate inquiry into the attacks.
Police official Multan Khan said that the police had arrested Masih, a sanitary worker, on Friday night – three days after he was accused of blasphemy by barber Shahid Imran.
Protesters began to assemble in the area of Masih’s home this morning and later set on fire houses and other items including furniture, crockery, auto rickshaws, bicycles and motorbikes belonging to local Christians.
An AFP reporter at the scene said:
Thick clouds of smoke engulfed the small houses, mostly consisting of one or two rooms, and many of them looked like charred shells.
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. Raza, who was busy in rescue operations in the area, told AFP:
At least 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were burnt by protesters,
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.
Private Pakistani TV channels showed footage of violence from the scene as many masked members of the mob damaged or burned down households.
The Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have both ordered an investigation into the violence. A spokesman said in a statement:
President Zardari called for a report into this unfortunate incident and said such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country.
Prime Minister Ashraf also ordered an “expeditious inquiry and measures to stop recurrence of such incidents in future”, his office said in a statement.
Provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said in Lahore that the government would not spare those involved in the attack.
These people committed a serious crime… there was no moral, legal or religious ground to indulge in such an act.
Shamaun Alfred Gill, a spokesman for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, also condemned the incident and demanded that the government provide security to Christians.
Shahi Imran, who filed a the blasphemy charge, is reported here as saying that he was not responsible for the incident and he had left the area when the mob arrived to burn the houses. He maintained that the accused should be taught a lesson but the other Christian families should not be harmed.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population are Muslims, and allegations of insulting Islam or the Prophet Mohammed can prompt violent outbursts of public anger, even when unproven.
The laws came under the international spotlight in August last year when 14-year-old Christian girl Rimsha Masih was held for three weeks in a high security prison for allegedly burning pages from the Koran.
Hat tip: M A Chohan and John C