Drunken row sparks anti-Christian riot

A drunken row between two friends was the trigger for blasphemy allegations that prompted a mob of angry Pakistani Muslim protesters to burn more than 100 Christian homes, police and witnesses said.

More than 3,000 Muslims rampaged through Joseph Colony, a Christian area of the eastern city of Lahore, on Saturday after allegations that a Christian had made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed three days earlier.

Blasphemy is a hugely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the 180 million population are Muslims, and even unproven allegations can trigger a violent public response.

Police said they had arrested more than 60 people over Saturday's attack and Pervez Rashid, spokesman for Punjab provincial government, told Geo television that "culprits would be tried in anti-terrorist courts".

Sawan Masih, a Christian sanitary worker, was arrested on Friday after his Muslim friend Shahid Imran complained he had made blasphemous remarks about the prophet. The arrest prompted many Christians to flee, fearing a backlash.

The senior police official for the area, Multan Khan, said Masih and Imran had been friends for many years.

"They used to sit together and drink together almost every evening. They were drunk on Wednesday when they had some arguments," Khan told reporters on Saturday.

It was during the argument that Masih allegedly made the blasphemous remarks, Khan said.

Local resident Altaf Masih, also a sanitary worker, said "while they were drunk they had an argument over discussion on religious issues".

Spokeswoman for Punjab police Nabila Ghazanfar said four senior officers including Khan had been removed from their posts for "negligence" and "failure to control" the mob.

No-one died in Saturday's violence but it is the latest in a series of attacks on minority communities in Pakistan this year, following four bloody bombings targeting Shiite Muslims that killed more than 250 people.

Those who lost their homes stayed in makeshift camps overnight and protested on Sunday outside the charred wreckage of their homes.

Rights campaigners say Pakistan's strict blasphemy laws, which can carry the death penalty, are often used to settle personal disputes and should be reformed.

The legislation came under international scrutiny last year after 14-year-old Christian girl Rimsha Masih was held for three weeks in a high security prison for allegedly burning pages from the Koran. The case against her was eventually thrown out.

Punjab government spokesman Rashid said the families affected by Saturday's violence would each receive 200,000 rupees ($2,000) compensation, and the authorities would pay for repairs to their homes.

Tahir Ashrafi, president of Pakistani Ulema (religious scholars) Council, condemned the attack saying Islam did not permit such violence.

"Resorting to arson on mere speculations is immoral, illegal and Islam does not allow this," he said.


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