Paramilitary troops patrolled the streets of a town in eastern Pakistan yesterday after Muslim radicals burnt to death eight members of a Christian family, raising fears of violence spreading to other areas.
Hundreds of armed supporters of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed Islamic militant group, set alight dozens of Christian homes in Gojra town at the weekend after allegations that a copy of the Koran had been defiled.
The mob opened fire indiscriminately, threw petrol bombs and looted houses as thousands of frightened Christians ran for safety. “They were shouting anti-Christian slogans and attacked our houses,” Rafiq Masih, a resident of the predominantly Christian colony, said. Residents said that police stood aside while the mob went on the rampage. “We kept begging for protection, but police did not take action,” Mr Masih said.
Police and local officials said that at least eight people, including four women and a child, were killed in the fires. Two others died of gunshot wounds. Residents said that the casualties were much higher; one claimed that the number of dead could be in the dozens as many bodies were still buried under the rubble.Shahbaz Bhatti, the Minister for Minorities, said that 40 Christian homes were torched in rioting. He said there was no truth to allegations that a Koran had been defiled, and accused the police of ignoring his appeal to provide protection to Christians.
Tension started mounting last week after Muslims accused three Christian youths of burning a copy of the Koran. They denied the allegations, but clerics called for their death. On Saturday hundreds of supporters of Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed Sunni sectarian group, poured into the town from surrounding districts. The group is believed to have close links with al-Qaeda and has been involved in several terrorist attacks targeting security forces in recent years.
Television footage showed armed men running through the streets, gunfire, and women and children wailing. Blackened furniture lay outside burning homes, while a group of people rushed a man suffering from burns on a cart through the streets. Rehman Malik, the Interior Minister, said that the paramilitary troops were sent after police and the local administration failed to control the situation. Security forces were also placed on high alert to prevent violence from spreading to other towns of Punjab.
Security in Gojra, which has a Christian population of about 50,000, was tightened yesterday as funerals were held for the eight victims. Christians make up a small minority of Pakistan’s 160 million people and have been the target of attacks by Islamic extremists before, particularly in eastern Punjab.
Christians also face intimidation because of discriminatory blasphemy laws, including one that carries the death penalty for defiling the Koran and images of the Prophet Muhammad. The law is often misused to settle personal scores.