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Pakistan crowd vandalises churches, torches homes after two accused of blasphemy

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan and though no one has ever been executed for it, numerous accused people have been lynched by outraged crowds.

Reuters
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People watch as smoke rises from a church building in Jaranwala, Pakistan Aug 16, in this screengrab obtained from a video. Photo: Reuters
People watch as smoke rises from a church building in Jaranwala, Pakistan Aug 16, in this screengrab obtained from a video. Photo: Reuters

A Muslim crowd attacked a Christian community in eastern Pakistan on Wednesday, vandalising several churches and setting scores of houses on fire after accusing two of its members of desecrating the Quran, police and community leaders said.

The attack took place in Jaranwala in the industrial district of Faisalabad, police spokesman Naveed Ahmad said. The two Christians were accused of blasphemy, he said, adding they and family members had fled their homes.

Resident Shakil Masih said he heard announcements inciting the mob and then saw crowds heading towards his Christian area.

"I left my home immediately with my family. Several other families did the same," he told Reuters.

The area has been cordoned off as police negotiated with the crowd, provincial police chief Usman Anwar told English Dawn.com online publication.

The police case against the two Christians is that they found pages of the Quran with some derogatory remarks written in red.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan and though no one has ever been executed for it, numerous accused people have been lynched by outraged crowds.

A former provincial governor and a minister for minorities have also been shot dead because of blasphemy accusations.

Rights groups say accusations of blasphemy are also misused to settle scores. Hundreds of people are languishing in prison after being accused as judges often put off trials, fearing retribution if they are seen as being too lenient, they say.

"The frequency and scale of such attacks — which are systematic, violent and often uncontainable — appear to have increased in the last several years," said the Human Rights Commision of Pakistan.

The rights group called for the setting up and equipping of special police forces to protect religious minorities’ sites of worship as directed by the 2014 Supreme Court judgment.

Caretaker Prime Minister Anwar ul Haq Kakar called for stern action against those responsible for Wednesday's violence. "I am gutted by the visuals coming out," he said.

Hundreds of people blocked a nearby highway to protest against the alleged desecration of the Quran.

A Christian leader, Akmal Bhatti, said the crowd had "torched" at least five churches and looted valuables from houses that had been abandoned by their owners.

Several social media posts showed some churches, houses and belongings on fire as police stood by.

The mob was made up of thousands of people led by local clerics, mainly from an Islamist political party called Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), a government source said.

The TLP, however, denied inciting the violence and said it had worked with police to try to calm things down.

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