Thousands of Muslims in a city in Pakistan have set fire to at least four churches and vandalised the homes of Christians over claims that two men desecrated the Quran, police say.
Residents said up to a dozen buildings connected to churches in Jaranwala, in eastern Punjab, were also damaged.
Police have detained more than 100 protestors and launched an investigation into the violence.
Authorities say the situation remains tense, but say no deaths were reported.
Police have also filed a case against two local Christian residents for violation of the blasphemy law, which carries the death sentence.
Even though Pakistan has yet to sentence anyone to death for blasphemy, a mere accusation can result in widespread riots, causing lynchings and killings
Two years ago, a Sri Lankan man accused of blasphemy was killed by an enraged mob and had his body set on fire. In 2009, a mob burned down about 60 homes and killed six people in the Gorja district in Punjab, after accusing them of insulting Islam.
A 19th century law punishing blasphemy was instituted by the British in colonial times. But in the 1980s, authorities introduced stricter punishments for breaking the law, including a death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.
Around 96% of Pakistan’s population is Muslim. Other countries, including Iran, Brunei, and Mauritania also impose capital punishment for insulting religion.
Religion-fuelled violence in Pakistan has risen since the country made blasphemy punishable by death, as it “bolsters violent behaviour,” Iftekharul Bashar, a researcher at the think-tank RSIS who focuses on political and religious violence in South Asia, told the BBC.
“The Pakistani society has experienced increased fragmentation, driven by widening economic disparities, leading to an upsurge in violence directed towards minority religious groups,” Mr Bashar said.
“The emergence of extremist and vigilante factions within Pakistan, some of which exhibit significant financial backing, also contributed to this trouble trend,” he added.
A local official told BBC Urdu that authorities received calls about protests and fires early Wednesday morning after reports of the two men allegedly desecrating the Quran, the holy book of Islam, circulated on social media.
Authorities said torn pages of the the sacred text with blasphemous content allegedly scribbled on them in red marker ink, were found near a Christian community.
The reports circulated around the city and on social media, sparking outrage among the Muslim community. The violence that ensued saw mobs attacking and looting private homes belonging to Christians.
Yassir Bhatti, a 31-year-old Christian, was one of those to flee their homes.
“They broke the windows, doors and took out fridges, sofas, chairs and other household items to pile them up in front of the Church to be burnt,” he told AFP news agency.
“They also burnt and desecrated Bibles, they were ruthless.”
Videos on social media show protesters destroying Christian buildings while police appear to watch on.
Amir Mir, the information minister for Punjab province, condemned the alleged blasphemy and said in a statement that thousands of police had been sent to the area, with dozens of people detained.
The mob was mostly made up of people from an Islamist political party called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a government source told Reuters. The TLP has denied any involvement.
Caretaker PM Anwar ul-Haq Kakar called for swift action against those responsible for the violence.
Pakistani bishop Azad Marshall, in the neighbouring city of Lahore, said the Christian community was “deeply pained and distressed” by the events.
“We cry out for justice and action from law enforcement and those who dispense justice, and the safety of all citizens to intervene immediately and assure us that our lives are valuable in our own homeland,” he posted on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Source : BBC