LAHORE: Over 175 houses were burnt in a mob attack on a predominantly Christian colony in the Badami Bagh area over an alleged blasphemy incident here on Saturday.
The violence began on Friday when a man accused a Christian, Sawan Masih, of committing blasphemy by making offensive comments about the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and defiling pages from the holy Quran.
The mob comprising thousands of people attacked Joseph Colony on Noor Road in the Badami Bagh area. The infuriated protesters forced some 170 Christian families to flee the area. It was reported that the mob not only attacked the houses but also looted them.
Disturbing scenes of burning houses, streets strewn with debris and blackened furniture were seen as the mob attacked the colony.
An affected woman said people in large numbers came to her home, ransacked it, threw household items out of her house, doused them with petrol and set fire to them. “They torched the houses of many such people who had nothing to do with the incident,” she added.
An eyewitness said the attackers went on the rampage, setting on fire many houses, damaging vehicles and hurling stones at the police. The police did not take any action against the people who were damaging property and setting fire to it, he added.
The police resorted to aerial firing for over an hour in the morning. Later, the protesters started gathering near Joseph Colony, where hundreds of poor Christian families live in small, dingy houses, and blocked theroads demanding immediate action against the accused.
The police initially tried to persuade them to clear the way for traffic, but the protesters turned violent and started hurling stones at them. Several policemen were injured in the heavy pelting.
The police lobbed tear-gas shells and resorted to a baton-charge to disperse the mob. The protesters then retreated but only to regroup, targeting the houses of Christians. Some of the residents had already fled the area anticipating a backlash.
The fire-fighters had to make hectic efforts for many hours to put out the fire. Many rescuers also received injuries while performing their duty. The backdrop of the blasphemy case is very dubious as both the accused Sawan Masih and the complainant Shahid Imran had been friends, and used to hang out together. They had their businesses in the same market, and according to other shopkeepers, they were engaged in some kind of a dispute for some time. A local, requesting anonymity, said both used to drink liquor together regularly and on the night of the incident both went out for the same purpose.
Another aspect of the issue is that the union elections of the iron workshops were just round the corner and Sawan and Shahid belong to opposing groups. Some locals also alleged that the violent storming and burning of the Christian homes was done by the union groups aspiring to gain support of the people by proving themselves as the greater flag-bearers of Islam.
Sawan Masih too, in his statement, has said similar things including the fact that the complainant Shahid Imran threatened him during an argument saying that he could destroy his life by accusing him of blasphemy, while both were drunk.
Taking notice of the incident, President Asif Ali Zardari has called for a report.
Presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar said that the president, while expressing grave concern over the incident of vandalism, directed the concerned authorities to ensure the safety and security of lives and property of the citizens.
The president said that safeguarding the rights of all citizens — Muslims and non-Muslims alike — was one of the main responsibilities of the government and it would continue undertaking every effort for the protection of their rights as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan. He said that such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country.
The president directed the concerned authorities that no one should be allowed to take the law into his own hands and that law and order must be ensured, the spokesperson added.
Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf also took notice of the incident. He directed an expeditious inquiry into the incident. He directed taking measures to stop the recurrence of such incidents in future.
“The Christians are equal citizens of the land and must be given complete protection. Islam teaches tolerance and assures protection to life and property of non-Muslims,” the PM added.
Meanwhile, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, while addressing a news conference, announced that each affected family would be given Rs200,000 in cash and the burnt houses would be reconstructed by the government. The CM ordered starting the compensation process immediately. He also suspended the DSP and SHO of Badami Bagh and made the SSP Operations Suhail Sukhera and SP City Multan Khan OSDs.
He said the elements involved in the incident including those who provoked the people and instigated them to attack the houses wouldn’t be spared.
He also requested the Lahore High Court chief justice to form a judicial commission to investigate the incident. He said cases would be registered against the attackers under Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) and the culprits would be awarded exemplary punishment. He said the person accused of blasphemy had been arrested on Friday night and an FIR had also been registered but despite that, the barbarism demonstrated on Saturday had no justification. He said the court would decide the case of blasphemy accused on merit, after a fair trial.
The CM made an appeal to the Ulema to come forward and play their role for creating awareness about the minorities’ rights and importance of tolerance in the Islamic society.
Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said an investigation had been carried out into the allegations and a case registered against the accused.
Badami Bagh police registered a case against Sawan Masih under Section 295C on the complaint of Shahid Imran. Meanwhile, police rounded up dozens of people on charges of arson and rioting.
MNA Pervaiz Malik visited the locality and told the area people mischievous elements were involved in the incident. He said the Punjab police demonstrated the best performance and about 18 policemen and one officer were also injured. Pervaiz Malik asked the people to remain peaceful.
Meanwhile, a judicial magistrate on Saturday sent to jail Sawan Masih on 14-day judicial remand. Police produced the accused before the court and sought his physical remand. However, the court sent him on judicial remand, directing the police to produce the accused again on March 23 along with investigation report.
The arson attack on the Christian colony was widely condemned. The World Minorities Alliance Convener J Salik expressed his deep grief over the burning of the Christians’ houses in Joseph Colony.
Jamaat-e-Islami Secretary General Liaquat Baloch said attacking innocent Christians was totally unjustified, un-Islamic and needed investigation. Jamaatud Dawah Ameer Hafiz Saeed and Tehrik-e-Hurmat-e-Rasool convener Maulana Ameer Hamza termed the setting ablaze of Christian houses tragic and un-Islamic.
Jamiat-e-Ahle Hadith chief Prof Sajid Mir also condemned the incident and said blasphemy of the Holy Prophet (PBHU) was the worst crime and its punishment was death but only the state had the power to sentence the blasphemer.
Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Dr Tahirul Qadri, in his statement, said the incident was a conspiracy against Pakistan. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed deep grief and anger at the unchecked attack on over 100 homes belonging to the Christian community in Badami Bagh, Lahore area.
National Secretary of National Commission for Justice and Peace Peter Jacob said there was no denying the fact that fuel for such hate actions was omnipresent in the Pakistani society and whenever there is a spark it all goes up in flames.
Father Emmanuel Yousaf Mani also condemned the incident.Concerned Citizens of Pakistan Chairperson Justice Nasira Javed Iqbal said it is inhuman to destroy lives and property of hundreds of families over an alleged fault of a single individual.
Chief of the Masiha Millat Party and General Secretary of the Human Liberation Commission of Pakistan Aslam Sahotra staged a large protest and sit-in outside the Lahore Press Club.
Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, Sarfaraz Latif Khosa, Akram Masih Gill, Engineer Shehzad Elahi, Aurangzeb Burki, Syed Asif Hashmi Awami Workers Party leaders Sheikh Mansoor, Muttahida Qaumi Movement chief Altaf Hussain, Dr Paul Bhatti and others also condemned the incident.