Christian communities across Pakistan have launched angry protests after a Muslim mob set fire to a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore.
Police used tear-gas and baton charges to disperse the protesters today, following yesterday’s assault in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore. Several police were reportedly hurt.
The arson attacks took place amid allegations that a Christian man had committed blasphemy. The government has ordered in inquiry.
Today’s demonstrations took place as families in Badami Bagh returned to their homes to find at least 150 of them destroyed, despite assurances from police that they would be protected. Smaller demonstrations also took place in Karachi, Islamabad and Multan.
“Everything’s been destroyed, look,” said Kala Jee Allah Ditta, a municipal worker and father-of-four, gesturing to the charred remains of his three-roomed home in the small Joseph colony where the arson attacks took place.
The boundary wall of his home was destroyed, and the inside was blackened by the flames that had raged during Saturday’s attack. A pungent smell hung in the air, apparently from chemicals used as an accelerant. Around Mr Allah Ditta, an angry crowd gathered, gesturing to similar damage wrought on other homes in the area.
The community said police, anticipating trouble had asked them to evacuate their homes on Friday night. “The station house officer of the local area told us to leave,” said Chand Masih, another resident. The attackers arrived the next day, going from door to door in the now empty colony, setting light to homes.
In each of the narrow and dusty streets, families sat in the open, surveying the damage around them and consoling each other. One man stood among the crowd to declaim his grief. “Just because of one person’s wrongdoing, they have punished the entire community. Just look at what they’ve done! Why is the government not protecting us?”
The tragedy’s roots is said to lie in a quarrel between two friends, Mohammed Imran, a local Muslim barber, and Sahwan Masih, a 28-year-old Christian municipal cleaner, who lived across the road. They were close, by all accounts. “They would sit together, drink together,” said Mr Chand Masih.
Earlier in the week, on an afternoon when they were sitting outside Mr Imran’s barber shop, a fight broke out between them. It is not clear what was said, but residents claim sharp words were exchanged about each other’s faiths. By Friday, Mr Imran and another friend, Urf “Chico” Shafiq, told the local Muslims.
The colony rests next to Lahore’s steel mills, and the quarrel coincided with local elections for the steel worker’s union. According to residents, the leading candidates decided to make the alleged blasphemy a campaign issue.
A crowd - estimated to be more than 3,000 strong - first gathered on Friday. They gathered after Friday prayers, apparently urged on by the local religious leader. The police were there, although in just scores. The next day, the attackers returned to torch the colony.
Community leaders have accused the authorities of doing nothing and insist they must be protected. Julius Salik, an activist and former minister, who visited the site of Saturday’s attack, said: “It feels very bad there. There is no protection. The government does not care about the minorities. The government has failed.”
Sohail Johnson, of the city’s Sharing Life ministry, who also visited the scene, said although the authorities had vowed to investigate and the Chief Justice of Pakistan had taken up the case, there was little expectation that the perpetrators would be punished.
“We feel insecure and we feel we will not get justice. They have burned two churches and dozens of holy bibles,” he said. “We are sad. We are in grief.”
According to the Associated Press, a spokesman for the provincial government, Pervaiz Rasheed, promised that the authorities would help people rebuild their homes and said those suspected of involvement in the attacks on the Christian community “would be tried in anti-terrorist courts”. Up to 150 people have been detained.
Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have both ordered an investigation into the violence.