LAHORE, Pakistan — Hundreds of people in eastern Pakistan rampaged through a Christian neighborhood Saturday, torching dozens of homes after hearing reports a Christian man had committed blasphemy against Islam’s prophet.
Blasphemy is a serious crime in Pakistan that can carry the death penalty but sometimes outraged residents exact their own retribution for perceived insults of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim and people of other faiths, including the nation’s small Christian community, are often viewed with suspicion.
The incident started Friday when a young Muslim man accused a Christian man of committing blasphemy by making offensive comments about the prophet, according to Multan Khan, a senior police officer in Lahore.
A large crowd from a nearby mosque went to the Christian man’s home Friday night, said Khan. Police registered a blasphemy case against the man after the crowd gathered and demanded action, the officer said.
Fearing for their safety, hundreds of Christian families fled the area overnight.
Khan said the mob returned on Saturday and began ransacking Christian homes and setting them ablaze. He said no one in the Christian community was hurt, but several policemen were injured when they were hit with stones as they tried to keep the crowd from storming the area.
But Akram Gill, a local bishop in the Lahore Christian community said the incident had more to do with personal enmity between two men — one Christian and one Muslim — than blasphemy. He said the men got into a brawl after drinking late one night, and in the morning the Muslim man made up the blasphemy story as payback.
He said the Christian community handed over to police the accused man, identified by police and Gill as Sawan Masih, when police came to the neighborhood to investigate. Then the Christians all locked up their houses and went to relatives homes in other areas. He said the mob was armed with hammers and steel rods and broke into houses, ransacked two churches and burned Bibles and crosses.
“Poor people were living here. They have lost all of their belongings,” he said. “Where can they go now?”
The scene was chaotic. An Associated Press reporter said roughly 150 homes were torched. One man was seen carrying a dog and some puppies from a burning house. Refrigerators, washing and sewing machines, cooking pots, beds and other household goods were ripped from homes, smashed and burned in the streets.
One Christian couple from the neighborhood said they went to their Muslim neighbors’ house Friday night after people came looking for the Christian man accused of blasphemy. Ishaq Masih said the Muslim neighbors sheltered the couple for the night and then gave them money to leave the area in the morning.
Associated Press writer Zarar Khan in Islamabad contributed to this report.