Police arrested more than 100 Muslims during raids in an area in eastern Pakistan where a mob of worshipers angry over a Christian’s alleged desecration of the Koran attacked churches and homes of the Christian minority, prompting authorities to send in troops to restore order.
There were no casualties as Christians living in a part of Jaranwala town in Faisalabad district were quickly moved to safer places.
Christians slowly returned to their homes on Thursday, only to see the destruction of at least one church that burned down. Four other churches were also damaged, while two dozen houses were burned or severely damaged during the riots.
“We were at home when suddenly we heard that a mob was coming, burning houses and attacking churches,” said Shazia Amjad, crying outside her house, which burned down on Wednesday.
Christians comforted each other outside damaged homes on Thursday as many women wept over the destruction. Those left without a home had no idea where to go or what to do now.
On Wednesday, Khalid Mukhtar, a local priest, told the Associated Press news agency that most Christians living in the area had fled to safer places. “Even my house has been burned,” he said, convinced that most of the 17 churches in Jaranaala had been attacked.
Delegations of Muslim clerics arrived in Jaranwala to help calm the situation, while troops and police patrolled the area.
Local authorities closed schools and offices and banned gatherings for a week to prevent further violence.
The violence prompted nationwide condemnation, while acting Prime Minister Anwaarul-ul-Haq Kakar ordered police to arrest the rioters.
On Thursday, Rizwan Khan, the regional police chief, said 129 suspects had been arrested and the situation was under control.
The violence erupted after some Muslims living in the area claimed to have seen a local Christian, Raja Amir, and his friend tearing pages from a Koran, throwing them on the ground and writing offensive comments on other pages.
Police say they are trying to arrest Amir to determine if he desecrated the holy book.
According to police chief Khan, the mob quickly gathered and started attacking churches and some Christian homes.
The violence was condemned by various domestic and international human rights groups.
Amnesty International called for the repeal of the country’s blasphemy laws.
Under blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or Islamic religious figures can be sentenced to death. While the authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, the accusation alone can often cause riots and incite mobs to violence, lynching and murder.
Local and international human rights groups say the blasphemy charges are often used to intimidate religious minorities in Pakistan and extort personal accounts.