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Christian protesters decry Muslim mob's arson spree following blasphemy charge

From Nasir Habib, CNN
updated 7:23 AM EDT, Sun March 10, 2013
Pakistani Christians react after Muslim demonstrators destroyed the homes of members of the Christian community.
Pakistani Christians react after Muslim demonstrators destroyed the homes of members of the Christian community.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Some throw stones at police, saying the government isn't adequately protecting Christians
  • More than 100 Christian homes were set afire by a Muslim mob
  • The mob was outraged over a Christian's alleged anti-Muslim remarks
  • Police: More than 150 suspects have been arrested in Saturday's arson spree

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Islamabad, Pakistan (CNN) -- Outraged Pakistani Christians took to the streets of Lahore on Sunday, protesting a rash of violence against their community over the weekend.

Demonstrators denounced the burning of more than 100 homes of Christians on Saturday -- a spree spurred by allegations that a Christian man made remarks against the Muslim prophet Mohammed.

Some of the hundreds of protesters Sunday threw stones at police, saying the government failed to adequately protect Christians, Lahore senior police official Rai Tahir said.

Tahir said video footage of the fires helped lead to the arrests of more than 150 attackers. He said charges of terrorism have been filed against the suspects.

The violence that tore through Lahore's Badami Bagh community Saturday followed the arrest of Sawan Masih, a Christian in his 20s accused of blasphemy.

But Masih's arrest wasn't enough to appease an angry mob of Muslims irate over the alleged crime.

"(The) mob wanted police to hand them over the alleged blasphemer," said Hafiz Majid, a senior police official in Badami Bagh.

The mob also looted some shops run by Christians, he said.

Majid said Christians have fled the area for fear of being killed.

If convicted, Masih faces the death penalty.

He denies the allegations made by the two men who filed the blasphemy complaint against him with police on Friday, Majid said.

Masih said the three got into an argument while drinking and that the other two men threatened to publicly accuse him of blasphemy, according to Majid.

"The attack is yet another shameful incident against a vulnerable community and further confirmation of the slide toward extremism in society on the one hand and, on the other hand, the apathy and inaction that has become the norm among the police," the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in a statement.

The group accused police of arresting Christians in the incident "while those who went on a rampage and can easily be identified from television footage have gone scot-free."

Pakistan's blasphemy laws were first instituted to keep peace between religions. But they have been criticized by human rights advocates who say the laws enable legal discrimination against religious minorities. At time, the laws have been misused to settle personal differences between Muslims and Christians.

There have been about 1,400 blasphemy cases since the laws were first enacted in 1986, according to U.S.-based Human Rights Watch. There are more than 15 cases of people on death row for blasphemy in Pakistan, and more than 50 people have been killed while facing trial for the charge, according to the organization.

Last year, a Pakistani court dismissed blasphemy charges against a Christian teenager whose case prompted international outrage.

Her detention stirred up religious tensions in the predominantly Muslim country. It also generated fierce criticism of Pakistani authorities and renewed debate over Pakistan's blasphemy laws.

President Asif Ali Zardari issued a statement Saturday on the most recent "unfortunate incident." He noted that the country's constitution protects the rights of all Pakistanis, and that "such acts of vandalism against minorities tarnish the image of the country."

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