LAHORE: A mob enraged over alleged blasphemy set on fire a number of houses belonging to Christians in Badami Bagh on Saturday.
There was no casualty as members of the Christian community, including women and children, had left the neighbourhood on Friday night after police advised them to do so.
A church and several shops were also torched by the mob. Police put the number of burnt houses at 125. Around 25 were arrested.
The blasphemy suspect was identified as 26-year-old Sawan Masih. Police took him into custody in the small hours of Saturday. Later a magistrate sent him on judicial remand.
Thousands of protesters armed with sticks, clubs and stones ransacked Joseph Colony, which is surrounded by iron warehouses, and then set over 100 residential properties as well as some motorcycles and rickshaws on fire.
A clash between the police and the arsonists left a number of people injured from both sides.
Fire-fighters succeeded in dousing the flames after battling for several hours.
A heavy police contingent cordoned off the area for rescue work.
As soon as businessmen saw the mob, they shuttered their shops and warehouses.
Witnesses and police said an angry crowd ransacked and burnt the entire locality comprising 175 small houses, a day after all Christian families left the area because police had alerted them to the possibility of an attack.
They said a majority of attackers who had lodged a protest a couple of days ago assembled on Noor Road, facing Joseph Colony, and started setting houses and shops on fire.
The affected people accused police of doing nothing to pre-empt the plunder.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif issued orders for suspension of two police officers and for making two others OSD.
City SP (Operations) Multan Khan, who was made OSD, said the arson attacks began at around 11:30am and up to 7,000 people took part in it.
He said the accused and the complainant had quarrelled under the influence of liquor on March 7, but the latter painted it as a case of blasphemy.
The case was registered on March 8 under Section 295-C of the Blasphemy Act.
“I returned after dropping my children at their school around 8am and saw people gathering at the roundabout. They later started throwing furniture and crockery from houses and burning them,” said Muhammad Safdar, a local resident.
He said most of the attackers belonged to the Pakhtun community.
According to him, tension gripped the locality after Imran Shahid, a barber, and blasphemy accused Sawan exchanged hot words on Thursday.
Safdar said most Christian families had left the area after Sawan’s house was attacked on Friday evening.
A group of protesters visited the police station on Saturday morning and asked police to identify the accused. Later people gathered outside the colony and ransacked houses, he added.
Imran Shahid accused Sawan of making blasphemous remarks about Holy Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) after the latter came to his shop.
However, Dilawar Masih, who lost his house and shop in the attack, said: “Both Imran and Sawan are close friends and the former has made the allegation only to settle a personal score because they had quarrelled over some petty matter.”
Dilawar wondered why the attackers burned their houses after the accused was handed over to police by the mob.He said a few policemen deployed on Friday evening fled the next day after the angry crowd attacked the houses.
A local woman, who identified herself as midwife Riaz, claimed Imran and Sawan dealt in liquor business and the former got the latter implicated in a fake blasphemy case. She said Sawan was handed over to police by local people, including Christians, on the demand of Muslims.
Raja Asif, standing outside his burnt house, said around 165 houses were destroyed.
Religious scholars, led by the prayer leader of Badshahi Masjid, visited the place on Saturday and persuaded the mob to disperse.
The Badami Bagh attack is the second such incident during the tenure of the PML-N-led Punjab government.
A few years ago, people burnt a Christian colony in Gojra (Toba Tek Singh) over alleged blasphemy.
INQUIRY: President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have ordered an immediate inquiry into the attacks.
“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”, his office said in a statement.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said 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 a TV channel.
The exact number of houses in Joseph Colony was not immediately known but police and rescue officials said they belonged to low to middle-class families from the minority community.“At least 160 houses, 18 shops and two small churches were burnt by protesters,” Dr Raza, who was busy in rescue operations in the area, said.
Zohra Yusuf, chairwoman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, put the number of houses burnt at over 100. She criticised the provincial government in a statement 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 called upon the government to ensure safety of life and limb to Christians.