Holy war from friends' row

By Omar Waraich, Andrew Buncombe

Christians protest after neighbourhood torched amid blasphemy allegations.

A Christian woman surveys the charred remains of her home. Photo / AP
A Christian woman surveys the charred remains of her home. Photo / AP

Christian communities across Pakistan have launched angry protests after a Muslim mob set fire to a Christian neighbourhood in Lahore.

Police used tear gas and baton charges to disperse the protesters yesterday, after Saturday's assault in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore. Several police were reportedly hurt.

The arson attacks took place amid allegations that a Christian man had committed blasphemy. The Government has ordered an inquiry.

Yesterday's demonstrations took place as families in Badami Bagh returned to their homes to find at least 150 of them destroyed, despite assurances from police that they would be protected. Smaller demonstrations also took place in Karachi, Islamabad and Multan.

"Everything's been destroyed, look," said Kala Jee Allah Ditta, a municipal worker with four children, pointing to the charred remains of his three-roomed home.

Around Allah Ditta, an angry crowd gathered, pointing to similar damage wrought on other homes.

The community said police, anticipating trouble, had asked them to evacuate their homes on Friday night. "The station house officer of the local area told us to leave," said Chand Masih, another resident. The attackers arrived the next day and set fire to homes.

Families sat in the open, surveying the damage and consoling each other. "Just because of one person's wrongdoing, they have punished the entire community," said one man. "Just look at what they've done! Why is the government not protecting us?"

The conflict's roots are said to lie in a quarrel between friends, Mohammed Imran, a local Muslim barber, and Sahwan Masih, a 28-year-old Christian municipal cleaner, who lived across the road. They were close, by all accounts. "They would sit together, drink together," said Chand Masih.

Earlier in the week, when they were sitting outside Imran's barber shop, a fight broke out between them. Residents claim sharp words were exchanged about each other's faiths. By Friday, Imran and another friend had told local Muslims about the dispute.

The colony sits next to Lahore's steel mills, and the quarrel coincided with local elections for the steel workers' union. According to residents, the candidates decided to make the alleged blasphemy a campaign issue.

A crowd - estimated to be more than 3000 strong - gathered after Friday prayers, apparently urged on by a local religious leader. The next day, the attackers returned to torch the colony.

Community leaders have accused the authorities of doing nothing and insist they must be protected.

A spokesman for the provincial government, Pervaiz Rasheed, said those suspected of involvement in the attacks "would be tried in anti-terrorist courts". He said up to 150 people had been detained.


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