LAHORE: An enraged mob torched dozens of houses located in a Christian-dominated neighbourhood of Lahore on Saturday, DawnNews reported.
The mob attacked the houses in Joseph Colony in Badami Bagh police precincts in the provincial capital following allegations of blasphemy against a Christian man. The man was booked under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).
It appeared that the man had been falsely accused of blasphemy but the police was forced to register a case to placate the mob, a local police official said.
Speaking to a private television channel, Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said the accused man was in police custody.
Sanaullah said all those involved in the arson would be arrested, adding that his government would try to rehabilitate the affected Christian families.
Police officer Multan Khan said the incident started Friday when a young Muslim man accused the Christian man of committing blasphemy.
A large crowd from a nearby mosque went to the Christian man's home on Friday night and Khan said police took the man into custody to try to pacify the crowd.
Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area overnight.
Khan said the mob returned on Saturday and began ransacking Christian homes and setting them on fire.
Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive subject in Pakistan – a nation of 180 million people, 97 per cent of whom are Muslims, and those convicted of defaming Islam or desecrating the Quran can face life imprisonment or even the death penalty.
Human rights activists claim the laws are often used to settle personal vendettas and last year two prominent politicians were assassinated apparently for speaking out against the legislation.
Police said protesters burnt 25 houses but Dr Ahmad Raza, in-charge of local rescue operations, and the independent 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,” Raza, who was busy in rescue operations in the area, told AFP.
Expressing grief and anger at the attack, HRCP chairwoman Zohra Yusuf put the number of houses burnt during the protest at over 100.
Police baton-charged the protesters to disperse them from the neighbourhood. There was no loss of life reported during the violence but 20 policemen were slightly injured during clashes, officials said.
Private Pakistani TV channels showed footage of violence from the scene as many masked members of the mob damaged or burned down households.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have both ordered an investigation into the violence.
“President Zardari called for a report into this unfortunate incident and said such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country,” his spokesman 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.
Provincial law minister Rana Sanaullah said in Lahore that the government would not spare those involved in the attack.
“These people committed a serious crime... there was no moral, legal or religious ground to indulge in such an act,” he told private Express News TV channel.
Shamaun Alfred Gill, a spokesman for the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance, also condemned the incident and demanded that the government provide security to Christians.