Pakistan police guard Christian area after mob attack over 'blasphemy'

Pakistan police guard Christian area after mob attack over 'blasphemy'
Christian areas in Pakistan are under police protection after mob attack over 'blasphemy'. At least four churches and a dozen houses and shops were burned and ransacked on Wednesday.
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Residents stand amid debris beside the torched Saint John Church in Jaranwala. (Photo by AAMIR QURESHI/AFP via Getty Images)

Police guarded a Christian neighbourhood in Pakistan on Thursday, after hundreds of people fled a Muslim mob that rampaged through the streets over alleged blasphemy.

Homes and churches were burned and ransacked by a crowd of hundreds that tore through the streets in Jaranwala, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Faisalabad, on Wednesday.

Authorities earlier said they were searching for two Christian brothers who had desecrated the Quran.

The caretaker chief minister for Punjab province, Mohsin Naqvi, said late Thursday that the "main accused" had been apprehended, without providing further details.

Police said more than 120 people had been arrested over the violence.

"Children, women and old people were running. Some were running barefoot and some fled in rickshaws. There was chaos everywhere," said Pastor Javed Bhatti, one of the few Christians who had returned to survey the damage.

The crowds were ordered to protest by Muslim clerics who used mosque loudspeakers to spread news of the allegations.

At least four churches and a dozen houses and shops were burned and ransacked, their broken contents strewn across the streets, according to an AFP team at the scene.

Muslims living in the predominantly Christian area gave shelter to their neighbours and pinned Quranic verses to the doors of Christian homes to prevent them from being targeted, residents of both faiths told AFP.

Locals said hundreds of people have fled the area to stay with relatives and have yet to return out of caution.

"All the Christians have left their homes and taken refuge here and there," Fayaz Masih Khokhar, a Christian man who had travelled from nearby Lahore to show solidarity with the community, told AFP.


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'Systematic, violent' 

On Thursday, government officials condemned the violence, while small protests were held in several cities calling for Christians to be protected.

"The current sad situation in the country demands that the leadership and religious figures of all religions and faiths play their key and fundamental role in safeguarding national unity," the Bishop of Lahore, Nadeem Kamran, said in a statement.

The Punjab caretaker leader 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.

Islamist right-wing leaders and political parties across Pakistan frequently rally around the issue.

Politicians have been assassinated, lawyers murdered and students lynched over accusations of blasphemy.

"The frequency and scale of such attacks -- which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable -- appear to have increased in recent years," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said.

"Not only has the state failed to protect its religious minorities, but it has also allowed the far right to permeate and fester within society and politics."

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.

Washington on Wednesday voiced alarm at the latest attacks and urged Pakistan to launch an investigation.

US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said that while the United States backed free expression, "violence or the threat of violence is never an acceptable form of expression".

Pakistan's newly appointed caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar said on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, that "stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities".