Thousands of angry protesters in Lahore, Pakistan, set fire to Christian-owned houses and belongings following a dispute over blasphemy. A young Christian was accused of making comments about Muhammad.
Protestors gathered in the area on Saturday morning (local time) before setting fire to houses, furniture, bicycles and motorbikes belonging to Christians.
Local police officer Multan Khan told the AFP news agency that the problems had started on Wednesday when Sawan Masih, a Christian, allegedly made derogatory remarks about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. He was arrested on Friday.
Christians started to leave the area the same day, fearing a backlash. Allegations of insulting Islam or Muhammad have lead to violent attacks in Pakistan in the past, where 97 percent of the population are Muslims.
That backlash came on Saturday. Dr Ahmad Raza, in charge of local rescue operations, said "at least 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were burnt by protesters."
Police charged the protesters with batons to move them out of the area. Local television channels showed pictures of masked individuals setting fire to property. Provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said: "These people committed a serious crime... there was no moral, legal or religious ground to indulge in such an act."
Akram Gill, a local bishop in the Lahore Christian community said the mob was armed with hammers and steel rods and broke into houses, ransacked two churches and burned Bibles and crosses. "Poor people were living here. They have lost all of their belongings," he said. "Where can they go now?"
Human rights activist Zohra Yusuf criticised the provincial government saying that it had "totally failed in providing protection to a minority community under siege."
In August last year, a 14-year-old Christian girl with learning difficulties, Rimsha Masih, was held for three weeks in a high security prison for allegedly burning pages from the Koran. She was later released after international concerns were expressed about her treatment. A local cleric was arrested and accused of planting the pages in her bag to incriminate her. However, he was later freed on bail.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are at least 16 people on death row for blasphemy and another 20 are serving life sentences in Pakistan.
jm/jlw (AFP, AP)