Rioters Arrested After 150 Christian Homes in Pakistan Were Burned Over 'Blasphemy'

Police in Pakistan's eastern city of Lahore arrested numerous rioters Monday, as Christians hit the street and missionary schools remained closed to protest the burning of more than 150 houses of Christians over alleged blasphemy of the Prophet Muhammad.

The more than 150 suspects were charged under various laws, including the Anti-Terrorism Act, for attempted murder, robbery, arson and terrorism, India's CNN-IBN quoted police officials from Pakistan's Punjab province as saying.

Hundreds of Christian protesters clashed with police on Monday, The Associated Press reported.

A Supreme Court bench, headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, reprimanded the government of Punjab and the province's police for failing to protect members of the minority community. Justice Azmat Saeed Sheikh, a member of the bench, said the violence took place "right under the nose of Punjab Police and there was total inaction," according to Press Trust of India.

Police made arrests two days after a mob of about 3,000 Muslims armed with sticks, clubs and stones burned at least 150 houses of Christians, a church and shops in the Joseph Colony area in Lahore over allegations that a Christian had made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.

Blasphemy is punishable by life in prison or even death in Pakistan.

No casualties were reported in Saturday's incident – being seen as the largest anti-Christian violence since the attacks in 2009 that killed nine Christians in the town of Gojra in Punjab. Police had advised area Christians to flee before the attack occurred.

Police said many more suspects were being questioned, and would be presented in court later.

The accused in the blasphemy case, identified as 26-year-old Sawan Masih, and the complainant, his Muslim friend identified as Imran Shahid, had quarreled under the influence of liquor last Thursday, but the latter claimed it was a case of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, according to the Dawn newspaper.

"Both Imran and Sawan are close friends and the former has made the allegation only to settle a personal score because they had quarreled over some petty matter," a local resident, Dilawar Masih, who lost his house and shop in the attack, was quoted as saying. He added that the attackers burned their houses even after the accused had been handed over to police.

The Supreme Court bench said it appears that police at the "highest level" were told not to take action when the violence erupted.

President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have ordered an investigation 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," the president's spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, said in a statement.

The United Nations also condemned the increasing violence against minorities in Pakistan. "It is alarming that in one year, hundreds of Pakistanis belonging to different minority groups have been killed, which is denial of right to life and disrespect of humanity," Timo Pakkala, U.N. Resident Coordinator, was quoted as saying Monday.

The blasphemy law, embedded in Sections 295 and 298 of the Pakistan Penal Code, is frequently misused to target religious minorities – Christians, Shi'as, Ahmadiyyas and Hindus – and allows Islamists and others to justify killings. Extremist Islamists believe that killing a "blasphemous" person earns a heavenly reward.

Just an accusation is enough to have a person arrested. There is no provision in the law to punish a false accuser or a false witness of blasphemy. Some local Muslims seek revenge by making an allegation against his or her adversary who is a non-Muslim. Many who are accused of blasphemy are killed by mobs extra-judicially.

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