The destruction a Christian neighbourhood suffered on Saturday speaks volumes about growing religious intolerance in the country.
An over 3,000-strong mob set ablaze more than 150 houses of Christians in Lahore’s Joseph Colony over alleged blasphemous remarks against Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) by Sawan Masih, a 28-year-old Christian sanitation worker, three days earlier.
Sawan was arrested on Friday when his Muslim friend, Shahid Imran, accused him [Sawan] of blasphemy, triggering an exodus of fearful Christians from the neighbourhood. The police also took Chaman Masih, father of the accused, and one of his brothers into custody.
“Only the person who committed blasphemy should be taught a lesson, while remaining families should not be harmed,” Imran, who lodged a case against Sawan, told The Express Tribune. Imran added that he could not be blamed for the destruction that followed his FIR.
The exact number of houses torched in Joseph Colony, located in Badami Bagh area, was not immediately known, but President Asif Ali Zardari, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif have ordered an immediate inquiry into the arson attacks.
Ordering a judicial inquiry, Shahbaz Sharif said the arsonists would be tried in anti-terrorism courts for their ‘barbaric’ acts. He also announced that SSP Sohail Sukhera and SP Multan Khan have been immediately made OSDs, whereas the DSP and SHO of the area have been suspended.
“The barbarism demonstrated today has no justification,” said Shahbaz, while addressing an emergency press conference in Lahore. He also announced financial assistance worth Rs0.2 million for each affected family. President Zardari also called a report into the ‘unfortunate incident’. “The president said such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country,” presidential spokesperson Senator 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.
Incensed protesters began to gather in the area Saturday morning and later set on fire houses and other items including furniture, crockery, auto rickshaws, bicycles and motorbikes belonging to Christians in the area. There was no loss of life reported during the rioting and arson attacks but 20 policemen sustained bruises during clashes, officials said.
Riaz Masih, whose house was also burnt down, told The Express Tribune that Christians were fleeing for their lives, adding that a majority of the protesters on Saturday were Pashtun labourers. Television channels showed footage of violence from the scene as masked protesters damaged or burned down households, while police used batons in a failed attempt to disperse them. “Thick clouds of smoke engulfed the small houses, mostly consisting of one or two rooms, and many of them looked like charred shells,” said an eyewitness.
According to police, protesters burnt 25 houses but Dr Ahmad Raza, in-charge of local rescue operations, and the 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,” said Raza, who was busy in rescue operations in the area.
Expressing grief and anger at the attack, HRCP Chairwoman Zohra Yusuf put the number of houses burnt during the protest at over 100. She criticised the provincial government and said “it totally failed in providing protection to a minority community under siege”.
Shamaun Alfred Gill, a spokesman for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, also condemned the incident and demanded the government provide security to the Christian community.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 10th, 2013.