LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Hundreds of people in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore attacked a Christian neighborhood Saturday and set fire to homes after hearing accusations that a Christian man had committed blasphemy against Islam’s prophet, said a police officer.
Blasphemy is a serious crime in Pakistan that can carry the death penalty but sometimes outraged residents exact their own retribution for perceived insults of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and people of other faiths, including the nation’s small Christian community, are often viewed with suspicion.
The incident started Friday when a young Muslim man accused a Christian man of committing blasphemy by making offensive comments about the prophet, according to Multan Khan, a senior police officer in Lahore.
A large crowd from a nearby mosque went to the Christian man’s home on Friday night, and Khan said police took him into custody to try to pacify the crowd. Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area overnight.
Khan said the mob returned on Saturday and began ransacking Christian homes and setting them ablaze. He said no one in the Christian community was hurt, but several policemen were injured when they were hit with stones as they tried to keep the crowd from storming the area.
The scene was chaotic. An Associated Press photographer on the scene said roughly 50 homes and a small church were set on fire. One man was seen carrying a dog and some puppies from a burning house. Refrigerators, washing and sewing machines, cooking pots, beds and other household goods were ripped from homes, smashed and torched in the streets.
One Christian couple from the neighborhood said they went to their Muslim neighbors’ house on Friday night after people came looking for the Christian man accused of blasphemy. Ishaq Masih said the Muslim neighbors sheltered the couple for the night and then gave them money to leave the area in the morning.
Such accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan can prompt huge crowds to take the law into their own hands. Once an accusation is made it’s extremely difficult to get it reversed, partly because law enforcement officials do not want to be seen as being soft on blasphemers.
Also on Saturday, four people were killed and 25 were wounded when a bomb exploded inside a mosque of the Sunni Barelvi sect in the northwestern city of Peshawar. The bomb was planted in a bookshelf inside the mosque and was detonated by remote control when noon prayers started, said senior police officer Imtiaz Khan.
Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, has been the site of several terrorist attacks in recent months. The city is surrounded by lawless tribal regions where al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban have hideouts.
The Pakistani military has carried out several operations in the area, but intermittent terrorist attacks continue.