LAHORE: Thousands of angry protesters on Saturday set ablaze more than 178 houses/shops belonging to Christians over a blasphemy row in Lahore, the capital of Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, officials said.
Over 3,000 protesters turned violent over derogatory remarks against Prophet Mohammed (PBUH)
allegedly made by Sawan Masih, a 28-year-old Christian, three days earlier, police official Multan Khan said.
The exact number of houses in Joseph Colony, a Christian neighbourhood in Badami Bagh area,
is not immediately known but police and rescue officials said they belonged to lower-to-middle-class families from the minority community.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have ordered an immediate inquiry into the attacks.
Police arrested Masih, a sanitary worker, who also ran a one-table snooker club, was arrested on Friday night while the incident actually happened on Wednesday evening," the police told an international news wire.
He said that the arrest was made when Masih's barber friend Shahid Imran complained that he had made blasphemous remarks about Prophet Mohammed, adding that Christians had fled the area on Friday evening, fearing a backlash.
Protesters began to assemble in the area on Saturday morning and later set on fire houses and other items including furniture, crockery, auto rickshaws, bicycles and motorbikes belonging to local Christians.
"Thick clouds of smoke engulfed the small houses, mostly consisting of one or two rooms, and many of them looked like parts of charred walls," said an eyewitness.
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 the foreign news agency.
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.
Footages of violence from the scene showed many masked members of the mob damaging or burning down the households.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have both ordered an investigation into the violence.
"President Zardari called for a report into this unfortunate incident and said such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country," his spokesman Farhatullah Babar said in a statement.
Prime Minister Ashraf also ordered an "expeditious inquiry and measures to stop recurrence of such incidents in future", his office said in a statement.
Chief Minister Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, said in Lahore that the government would not spare those involved in the attack.
“No one, who even has a slightest hand in the rampage that left hundreds of Christian homes inhabitable and valuables worth millions of rupees burnt to ashes, will be spared”, said a grave looking Shahbaz Sharif addressing media here.
Later, Punjab law minister, Rana Sanaullah, also visited the ravaged Joseph Colony amid anti-Punjab government protests.
“I assure you all the hooligans who vandalized, arsonized, and pillaged your houses and businesses will be taken to the task tonight”, said he talking to the victims who lost their homes as well as lifesavings.
Christian community across Pakistan took to protest over the tragic incident which left so many homeless as well as deprived of their lifesaving.
Reports from Karachi said Christians staged protest in the Esa Nagri area condemning the devastation their community members were subjected to in Lahore. Police resorted to aerial firing and baton-charge to break the protest demonstrations.
Christians also came out of their houses in Multan and Sargodha to show solidarity with their community members condemning the incident as well as demanding security for themselves.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population is Muslim, and allegations of insulting a religious figure prompt violent outbursts of public anger, even when unproven.
Azad Marshal appeals Christian community to remain peaceful
Lahore: The President National Council of Churches of Pakistan, Dr. Azad Marshal, has appealed to Christian community to demonstrate tolerance and remain peaceful over the tragic incident of Badami Bagh. He said that Christian community is a peace loving and it has always played a vital role in the progress and development of Pakistan. He said that today special prayers were offered in the churches for the security of the country. He said that Christian community loves Pakistan.
In his statement, Dr. Azad Marshal appealed Christian community to remain peaceful and not to damage the public properties. He assured that his community will extend all out cooperation to the administration in order to bring the mischievous element to their logical end. He said that Punjab government, by taking prompt action, has consoled Christians. He expressed the hope that Punjab government will take the responsible of Badami Bagh incident to task. Bishop Dr. Azad Marshal said that the meeting with Chief Minster was positive and their all demands have been accepted.