By Xavier P. William, Worthy News' Special Correspondent reporting from Lahore, Pakistan and Stefan J. Bos
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (Worthy News)– A Muslim mob attacked a Christian neighborhood in eastern Pakistan torching up to 100 homes and injuring dozens, after hearing reports that a Christian man committed blasphemy against Islam.
As many as 3,000 Muslims rampaged through the city of Lahore's Joseph Colony "to search" for alleged blasphemer Savan Masih, 26, Christian aid workers told Worthy News.
"When they couldn't find him they brutally beat his father and attacked Christians living in the area," explained the well-informed Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).
Residents said the problems began Friday, March 8, when Masih, a Christian, was refused a hair cut by the local barber shop's Muslim owner, Imran Shahid. The incident triggered a heated exchange about religion between the two men, residents said.
Shahid, accompanied by supporters, reportedly told police that "drunk" Sawan Masih made "derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad."
Masih was detained by police under Pakistan's controversial blasphemy legislation as part of efforts to ease tensions, but violent Muslims returned anyway to the Christian neighborhood Saturday, March 9, witnesses said.
Properties, including refrigerators and other household products. were taken to streets. Several were burned. Xavier P. William for Worthy News.
"We were busy with our daily work when we heard people shouting 'burn them alive!'," recalled resident Salamat Masih in an interview with Worthy News.
"A huge mob rushed in and burned our properties," he said. "They threw acid and threw stones at the houses. The authorities kept silent and didn't intervene until everything was burned," Masih complained.
However Multan Khan, a senior police officer in Lahore, told reporters his forces tried to intervene. Several policemen, he claimed, were even injured when they were hit with stones as they tried to keep the crowd from storming the area.
The Catholic priest in charge of Joseph Colony, Inayat Barnard, said "Christians are frightened" and several "have fled" the area. There were reports that hundreds of families already left, but the priest said that "many families are still here and are waiting in fear…". At least one Christian couple was hiding with Muslim neighbors overnight, before fleeing, residents said.
Some residents were allegedly told they could face the same fate as Christians in Gojra town, where in 2009 at least seven believers were burned to death and 40 houses and a church were set ablaze by a mob of about 1,000 Muslims.
Local Christians also said a local Muslim cleric in Lahore urged followers to kill the Christian man accused of blasphemy.
CLAAS and two other rights groups, Life for All and Masihi Foundation, strongly condemned the latest violence and said their teams "are on the ground to help the victims."
They also urged local police to provide security for Christians in the area and for the prosecution of the attackers.
The overnight violence underscored a wider debate on blasphemy legislation in this heavily Islamic nation.
"These laws are being constantly abused and as is often the case, a whole community has suffered because of accusations against one man," said Nasir Saeed, director of CLAAS-UK, the British affiliate of the Pakistan-based group.
He said Saturday's violence was "the first big attack on Christians this year because of the blasphemy laws, but may not be the last."
In Pakistan, blasphemy is viewed as a serious crime that can carry the death penalty, but the latest violence shows that outraged residents exact their own retribution for perceived insults of Islam's Prophet Muhammad, Saeed told Worthy News in a statement.
"Rather than wait for the authorities to take action against Savan Masih, local Muslims have taken it upon themselves to administer their own form of justice. In doing so [they] have devastated a whole Christian colony without thinking twice," he noted.
Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and people of other faiths, including the nation's minority Christians, are often viewed with suspicion, according to church groups.
Over a dozen people are known to be on death row over blasphemy allegations and over 50 people have been killed while awaiting trial on similar charges, according to rights activists.
Two politicians, the governor of Pakistan's Punjab province, Salman Taseer, and Christian federal minister Shahbaz Bhatti, were assassinated in 2011 for criticizing the country's blasphemy law.
Several Christians are among those detained for alleged blasphemy, including Younis Masih who has been jailed since September 10, 2005.
The High Court in Lahore is scheduled to announce as early as this month whether it will uphold his death sentence for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Mohammed. He and other Christians have strongly denied the charges.
After more than seven years behind bars lawyers hope the frail Christian will soon be released.
Yet, Christians have expressed concern that pressure by Muslim "extremists" may negatively impact the court's decision.
It came amid reports that four people were killed and 25 inured in Peshawar, the capital of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa province, on Saturday, March 9, when a bomb exploded inside a mosque of the Sunni Barelvi sect.
Local police said the device was hiden in a bookshelf inside the mosque and was detonated by remote control when noon prayers started.
The city is surrounded by lawless tribal regions where terror groups al-Qaeda and Pakistani Taliban have hideouts. Christians are also known to be in the crossfire. Christians in the area received death threats and some were kidnapped before being released, Worthy News reported earlier.
The Pakistani military says it has carried out several operations in the area, but Christians point out that terrorist attacks continue in the region.