Police were guarding a Christian neighborhood in Pakistan on Thursday, after hundreds of Muslim men rampaged through its streets burning and ransacking churches and homes over accusations of blasphemy a day earlier.
The violence broke out in Jaranwala, on the outskirts of the industrial city of Faisalabad, after allegations spread that Christians had desecrated the Koran, forcing families to flee their homes.
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On Thursday morning, hundreds of police were deployed in the area — including outside the main Salvation Army Church that had been gutted by fire, its walls and window blackened.
The day before, rioters had hammered the cross atop the church until it split apart, to cheers from crowds below.
“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, told AFP.
“We are here to meet family members and also to show solidarity with our community. They burnt our churches, our Bibles, attacked houses.”
At least four churches and seven houses were attacked, a police official told AFP at the scene.
A spokesperson for the Punjab provincial government said more than 100 people have been arrested, with police also seeking to arrest the people accused of defiling the Muslim holy book.
Images on social media showed crowds of hundreds armed with sticks and rocks storming through the streets, with smoke rising from the badly damaged church buildings.
Yasir Bhatti, a 31-year-old Christian, fled his home in a narrow alley next to one of the churches that was ransacked by the mob.
“They broke the windows, doors and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the church to be burnt. They were ruthless,” he told AFP by phone on Wednesday.
The boundary walls of a Christian cemetery were also vandalised, police said.
Local Muslim leaders used mosque loudspeakers to urge their followers to demonstrate, according to videos posted on social media.
“Christians have desecrated the Holy Koran. All the clerics, all the Muslims should unite and gather in front of the mosque. Better to die if you don’t care about Islam,” one cleric is heard saying.
– ‘Cry out for justice’ –
Blasphemy is a sensitive issue in Muslim-majority Pakistan, where anyone deemed to have insulted Islam or Islamic figures can face the death penalty.
Pakistani bishop Azad Marshall, in the neighbouring city of Lahore, said the Christian community was “deeply pained and distressed” by the events.
“We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
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 that can be used to settle personal vendettas.
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 on Wednesday.
“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 that “stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities”.