JARANWALA, Pakistan (AP) — Police in eastern Pakistan arrested 129 Muslims after a mob angered by an alleged Quran desecration attacked a dozen churches and nearly two dozen homes of minority Christians, officials said Thursday (Aug. 17). Police also arrested the two Christian men suspected of defacing the Quran.
The alleged desecration sparked violence in the city of Jaranwala in the Faisalabad district on Wednesday, where Christians quickly moved to safer places as the mob rampaged. There were no casualties in what was one of the country’s most destructive attacks on Christians.
The city police chief, Bilal Mehmood, said officers had arrested Raja Amir and his friend, who had been accused by local Muslims of tearing the pages of Islam’s holy book and throwing it on the ground after writing insulting remarks on other pages.
The regional police chief, Rizwan Khan, said 129 suspects in the mob violence and arson had been arrested and that situation was under control. Authorities also summoned soldiers to restore order in the area, and Christian residents slowly returned home to see the destruction on Thursday.
“We were sitting at home when suddenly we heard that a mob is coming and it is burning homes and attacking churches,” Shazia Amjad said as she wept outside her torched home.
She said the mob burned household items and furniture and some of her possessions were stolen while she was staying with her family in a safer area. Amjad said the rioters used gasoline to burn homes. Other Christians described similar ordeals and expressed bewilderment.
Azeem Masih wept as he sat outside his burned home on a street where several buildings were burned. He said some of the rioters brought vehicles to take the Christians’ household items after burning their furniture and other belongings.
“Why did they do it to us? We had not done anything wrong,” he said.
Christians consoled each other outside their damaged homes, weeping and crying as those who lost their homes wondered where to go and what to do.
Local priest Khalid Mukhtar said he believed most of Jaranwala’s 17 churches had been attacked and his own home was damaged.
Government officials said all of the damaged churches and homes would be restored within a week and those who suffered losses would be compensated. The violence drew nationwide condemnation, with caretaker Prime Minister Anwaarul-ul-Haq Kakar ordering police to ensure the rioters are arrested.
According to Khan, the regional police chief, the mob had quickly gathered and began attacking multiple churches and several Christian homes. The rioters also attacked the offices of a city administrator on Wednesday, but police intervened, firing into the air and wielding batons to disperse rioters with the help of Muslim clerics and elders.
Videos and photos posted on social media show an angry mob descending upon a church, throwing pieces of bricks and burning it. In another video, four other churches are attacked, their windows broken as attackers throw furniture out and set it on fire.
In another video, a man is seen climbing to the roof of a church and removing a steel cross after repeatedly hitting it with a hammer as a crowd on a road cheers him on.
The violence drew condemnation from various domestic and international human rights groups. Amnesty International called for the repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Vedant Patel, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, called for calm and asked Pakistan to conduct a full investigation.
“We support peaceful freedom of expression and the right to freedom of religion and belief for everybody. And as we have previously said, we are always concerned by incidents of religiously motivated violence,” he said at a briefing in Washington on Wednesday.
Under the country’s blasphemy laws, anyone found guilty of insulting Islam or Islamic religious figures can be sentenced to death. While authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, often just an accusation can cause riots and incite mobs to violence, lynchings and killings.
Domestic and international human rights groups say blasphemy allegations have been used to intimidate religious minorities and settle personal scores.