More than 80 Christian homes and 19 churches in Pakistan were vandalised when a Muslim mob rampaged through the streets over alleged blasphemy this week, a top police official said Friday.
Hundreds of Pakistan’s Christian minority fled their homes Wednesday when an angry crowd of Muslim men tore through a neighbourhood in the city of Jaranwala in Punjab province, torching homes and churches.
“The events that unfolded were tragic. Violence like this can never be justified,” Punjab police chief Usman Anwar told AFP.
Anwar said he personally interrogated the two Christian brothers accused of desecrating the Koran “to avoid accusations of torture”.
Police said they have arrested an additional 128 people linked to the rampage, in which 87 homes were damaged in the Christian neighbourhood, their contents strewn all over the streets.
The angry mob of hundreds were ordered to protest by Muslim clerics, who used mosque loudspeakers to spread news of the allegations.
Muslims living in the predominantly Christian area gave shelter to their neighbours and pinned Koranic verses to the doors of Christian homes to prevent them from being targeted, residents of both faiths told AFP.
On Friday, 3,200 churches were guarded by police across Punjab province to provide reassurance to the Christian community, Anwar said, adding that he will travel to Jaranwala Sunday to show solidarity with the Christian community.
Government and religious leaders have called for calm.
Christian groups have held a number of small protests across the country calling for greater protection.
“We hope that through this protest, the government must realise that this issue must be dealt with sternly and those who committed destruction must be brought to justice,” Archbishop of Karachi, Benny Travis, told AFP at a small rally.
Punjab’s caretaker chief minister Mohsin Naqvi expressed solidarity with Christians, adding that they would be compensated for their losses.
The provincial government has announced an inquiry into the violence.
Christians, who make up around two percent of the population, occupy one of the lowest rungs in Pakistani society and are frequently targeted with spurious blasphemy allegations.
Blasphemy is an incendiary charge in deeply conservative, Muslim-majority Pakistan, where even unproven allegations of insulting Islam and its Prophet Mohammed can provoke death at the hands of vigilantes.
Politicians have been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over accusations of blasphemy.
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the number and size of the attacks “appear to have increased in recent years”.
In one of Pakistan’s most high-profile cases, Christian woman Asia Bibi was at the centre of a decade-long blasphemy row, which eventually saw her death sentence overturned and ended with her fleeing the country.
Her case sparked violent demonstrations and high-profile assassinations while spotlighting religious extremism across wide sections of Pakistani society.