Police in Pakistan have arrested more than a dozen people in overnight raids a day after Shri Paramhans Ji Maharaj Samadhi, a Hindu temple, was set on fire and badly damaged by a mob in the northwestern province of Khyber Pakthunkhwa, officials said on Thursday.
The attack on the temple on Wednesday in the town of Karak, some 100km (62 miles) southeast of the provincial capital Peshawar, drew condemnation from human rights activists and the minority Hindu community.
Local police said they detained 24 people in overnight raids and more raids were under way to arrest individuals who participated or provoked the mob into attacking the temple.
The attack happened after locals were ostensibly offended by a planned extension of the temple, which has been under renovation for years.
The temple had been badly damaged in attacks in 1997 and provincial authorities had only carried limited renovation had been done on it until the Supreme Court ordered a full refurbishment was ordered by the Supreme Court in 2015.
The Hindu community – which comprises less than 2 percent of Pakistan’s 200 million people – had planned to extend the temple as part of the renovations, according to District Police Chief Irfanullah Khan, who spoke to AFP.
He said a house adjacent to the temple had been bought by the community and was being renovated, offending locals who denounced the move, saying the 2015 Supreme Court decision had been on condition that the temple would not be expanded.
According to witnesses, the mob was led by a local cleric and supporters of Pakistan’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party.
The country’s minister for religious affairs, Noorul Haq Qadri, called the attack “a conspiracy against sectarian harmony”.
He took to Twitter on Thursday, saying attacks on places of worship of minority religious groups are forbidden in Islam and “protection of religious freedom of minorities is our religious, constitutional, moral and national responsibility”.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has assured Pakistan’s minorities of their safety.
“I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. Our minorities are equal citizens of this country,” Imran Khan tweeted in February.
In Karachi, the capital of Sindh province and where most of the country’s Hindus live, more than 200 people protested outside the Supreme Court, calling for justice.
“You must respect other people’s religion. We are Pakistanis, and for God’s sake, nobody needs to give us a certificate of loyalty”, said Mangla Sharma, a Hindu member of Sindh’s provincial assembly.
Gopal Kamuany, president of the Pakistan Hindu Council, accused local authorities of standing by as the attack happened.
“In the video of the attack, the administration is just watching silently as the mob dismantles the temple. What kind of justice is that”, Kamuany said.
The attack comes weeks after the United States placed Pakistan on a list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.
On Wednesday, Pakistan’s human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, said the government has a responsibility to “ensure safety and security of all our citizens and their places of worship”.
The incident comes weeks after the government allowed Hindu residents to build a new temple in Islamabad on the recommendation of a council of clerics.
Although Muslims and Hindus generally live peacefully together in Pakistan, there have been other attacks on Hindu temples in recent years.
Most of Pakistan’s minority Hindus migrated to India in 1947 during the partition of India and Pakistan.