In Pakistan, the mere accusation of blasphemy is enough to spur angry mobs to violence, and human rights advocates say the victims are usually Christians.
Last weekend, some 3,000 Muslims stormed Christian churches, torched hundreds of homes and burned hundreds of Bibles in a Christian neighborhood of Lahore, the country’s second largest city. It apparently began as an argument between two men, but once the accusation of blasphemy was invoked, it exploded into violence and mayhem.
“The attackers were given a free hand when they were torching the belongings and our homes,” a witness told FoxNews.com on condition of anonymity. “The attackers were Pashtuns and workers of different steel factories and warehouses.”
The violence came two days after Sawan Masih, a Christian sanitation worker , and Shahid Imran, a Muslim barber, scuffled. When Imran accused Masih of blasphemy, police and a local mosque got involved and the situation spiraled out of control. Remarkably, no one was killed.
“I was beaten by the mob despite the fact I had nothing to do with what happened,” said a shaken up Chaman Masih, father of the suspect, “but I know one thing that my son is innocent.’’ Masih accused the Police of prior knowledge of the attack.
In Pakistan, where Christians make up about 1.6 percent of the population of 180 million, a blasphemy conviction can bring a sentence of life in prison or even death. And a religious political party also made attempts to urged the Islamic nation’s courts to ban the Christian bible altogether, arguing that “it contains blasphemous passages that are a cause of humiliation for Muslims”. Although the nation has so far not taken that step, the sentiment provides cover for vigilante attacks on minorities, according to Christians.
Salamat Akhtar, founding chairman of the All Pakistan Christians League, told FoxNews.com it was the mob that committed blasphemy in the latest case, by burning two churches and destroying the bibles.
“We request the government to register the same blasphemy case against the perpetrators,” said Akhtar.
Nearly 200 houses were burned in the Christian neighborhood, called, Joseph Colony. The destruction has left about 300 poor Christian families homeless and wondering why police, instead of providing protection, told them to evacuate ahead of the mob backlash.
A senior police official from Lahore told FoxNews.com that the Christian residential colony comprises a quarter of an otherwise industrial area, and noted the factory owners have long been trying to dislodge them so they could expand their operations.
After hundreds of Christians took to the streets to protest the day after the violence, Pakistan’s Supreme Court criticized local police on Monday. A hearing has been adjourned for Wednesday, but Asif Aqeel, director of Center for Law and Justice, said the courts were not likely to be able to do much.
“Judicial inquiries into such incidents mostly remain useless as the administration influenced by [the] powerful government does not provide facts and dodges the judges,” Aqeel said.
Though Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf both have ordered an investigation in to the attack and condemned it, Christian activists are skeptical.
“The government, courts and institutions are not serious about our plight and after so many incidents, our confidence level is decreasing,’’ Naila Diyal, chairperson of Christian Progressive Movement, told FoxNews.com.