LAHORE, Pakistan (AP) — Police have arrested around 150 people accused of burning dozens of Christian houses in eastern Pakistan after a non-Muslim was accused of making offensive comments about Islam's Prophet Muhammad, police said Sunday as Christians rallied against the destruction.
The Christian demonstrators blocked a main highway in Lahore and police fired tear gas shells to disperse the protesters who demanded assistance from the government.
Government spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed promised the government would help hem rebuild their houses, but the Christians expressed dissatisfaction with the way the government was handling the incident.
"I have been robbed of all of my life's savings," Yousuf Masih said, standing close to his burned house. He said the government's announcement that it would give 200,000 rupees ($2,000) compensation to each family was a joke.
The incident began on Friday after a Muslim accused a Christian man of blasphemy — an offense that in Pakistan is punished by life in prison or death. On Saturday, a mob of angry Muslims rampaged through the Christian neighborhood, burning about 170 houses.
The Christian man is in police custody pending an investigation into the allegations.
Those who rioted are being investigated for alleged arson, robbery, theft, and terrorism, said police officer Abdur Rehman. The Pakistani police usually arrest rioters to tamp down public anger, but those accused are rarely convicted.
The law is often misused to settle personal scores and rivalries.
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.
Such accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan can prompt huge crowds to take the law into their own hands. Once an accusation is made it's difficult to get it reversed, partly because law enforcement officials and politicians do not want to be seen as being soft on blasphemers.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are at least 16 people on death row for blasphemy and another 20 are serving life sentences.
Last year, there was a rare reversal of a blasphemy case. A teenage Christian girl with suspected mental disabilities was accused of burning pages of the Quran. But she was later released after a huge domestic and international outcry about her treatment. A local cleric where she lived was arrested and accused of planting the pages in her bag to incriminate her, a rare example of the accuser facing legal consequences. However, he was later freed on bail.
Also on Sunday, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed a foreign militant who was riding on horseback in Datta Khel in North Waziristan, according to three Pakistani intelligence officials who spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Associated Press Writer Rasool Dawar in Peshawar, Pakistan, contributed to this report.