A demonstrator burns a cross during a protest in the Badami Bagh area of Lahore March 9. An enraged mob torched dozens of houses located in a Christian-dominated neighbourhood of Lahore on Saturday, local media reported. (Adrees Hassain/Reuters)
A barbed exchange over a haircut turned into accusations of blasphemy and the torching of a neighbourhood.
Pakistan is once more reeling in the wake of sectarian violence after more than 125 homes in Lahore were burned by a mob of more than 3,000 people on Saturday.
The crowd was responding to rumours that a local Christian man named Sawan Masih had made derogatory comments about the Prophet Muhammad. Masih, a 26-year-old sanitation worker, told police after his arrest on blasphemy charges that a local barber had spread the false rumours after refusing to cut his hair.
A church and several shops were also burned over the weekend by the mob, the Pakistani newspaper Dawn reports.
The area of Lahore targeted by the mob is made up largely of Christian families. Most of them had left the area because police warned them about the possible attack.
President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf have ordered an immediate inquiry into the attacks.
The Express Tribune newspaper reports 21 suspects have been jailed for their alleged involvement in the attack.
It’s understandable if locals don’t expect to receive justice for their burned homes. Pakistan’s policing has long been criticized for its inefficiency. In 2011, I investigated Pakistan’s broken justice system, where 98 per cent of those charged of a serious crime are acquitted, for a Star investigation.
The Lahore mob’s rampage also rekindles memories of the case of Asia Bibi.
Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is jailed in Pakistan, condemned to death on the charge of blasphemy. When moderate Punjab governor Salman Taseer sought to have her sentence quashed, he was murdered by his own security guard.
Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was The Star's South Asia bureau chief from 2008 to 2011. He now covers humanitarian aid and international assistance. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead