Police in central Pakistan have arrested dozens of men a day after a mob burned a Christian area in Punjab province over alleged blasphemy. The incident has outraged Christians and civil society activists, who took to the streets on Sunday to demand effective protection of minorities and reforms in the controversial blasphemy laws of majority-Muslim Pakistan.
Pakistani authorities say that Saturday’s mob attack in the provincial capital, Lahore, was prompted by allegations that a resident of the Christian colony made offensive comments about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Under pressure from local Muslim clerics, police registered a case and took the alleged blasphemer into custody on Friday for investigation. But those actions did not forestall the attack on the Christian area the next day.
Witnesses say hundreds of radical Muslims armed with stones, clubs and sticks ransacked and burned the entire locality of more than 150 houses. There were no casualties because Christian families fled the area fearing for their safety.
In response to the attack, Christians and civil society groups took to the streets on Sunday in several of Pakistan's cities to demand effective protection of the minority community.
A rights activist at a rally in Islamabad, Tahira Abdullah, said reforms are needed to stop misuse of the blasphemy law.
She said the law's provision for the death penalty has encouraged extremists to fabricate blasphemy accusations to settle scores and personal rivalries in the name of Islam.
“The death sentence has now made it very easy to misuse, abuse and exploit the so-called blasphemy law for their own vested interests and purposes," said Abdullah. "For example property disputes, land-grabbing mafia, personal enmities all sorts of things are being now put at the door of the blasphemy law and it is being totally exploited.”
Pakistan has also seen a rise in sectarian violence between majority Sunnis and minority Shi'ite Muslims. A female Christian activist at the rally in Islamabad, Indu Mitha, said the Muslim infighting has fueled feelings of insecurity among Pakistan’s minorities.
“So far as controlling or having the law speak and have a hold, it is all gone absolutely to pieces," said Mitha. Everybody can get up and murder anybody on any excuse. And if the Muslims are going to fight between themselves that’s their own business I feel but it makes the atmosphere bad for all the other minorities even worse.”
Human rights groups and Christians in Pakistan have long demanded repeal of the blasphemy law. Activist Tahira Abdullah blames the country’s mainstream so-called liberal parties for failing to enact changes.
“Because each government that has come into the center or the provinces is a coalition with religious political parties and they are holding them hostage and blackmailing them not to revise, or change, or modify, forget about repealing the blasphemy law," said Abdullah.
In addition to arresting more than 150 suspects in connection with Saturday’s attack, the Punjab provincial government has promised to help rebuild the houses of the Christian families and provide financial compensation.
Shahnaz Wazir Ali is special assistant to the Pakistani prime minister on social issues. She defended the coalition government, led by her party, for standing up for the rights of minorities.”
“It is only the Pakistan Peoples Party government has taken the brunt of attacks on things like the blasphemy law because as you know we lost the governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, and we also lost the minister for minority affairs, Shahbaz Bhatti, to the bullets of radical extremist elements because they stood up for the rights of minorities," said Ali. "So we have constantly said that minorities are very, very important part of Pakistan’s population and are equal citizens in every sense.”
The two Pakistani politicians, Taseer and Bhatti - the only Christian minister of the current government, were both assassinated in 2011 because they were urging reforms in the blasphemy law.