Hundreds of Christians in Pakistan protesting against the burning of their homes by a mob over alleged blasphemous remarks made against Prophet Muhammad have clashed with police in at least two cities.
Police fired tear gas canisters and used batons to disperse almost a thousand demonstrators who had gathered in Karachi and Lahore, and took six protesters into custody.
In Lahore, hundreds of protesters, some carrying large crucifixes, blocked a main highway as they pressed their demands for better compensation payments from the government following the destruction of their homes, police official Malik Awais said.
Smaller demonstrations were held in the capital, Islamabad, and the adjoining city of Rawalpindi.
The protesters called on Pakistan’s government to better protect minorities.
Local Christian pastor Khalid Masih said it was “quite clear that [the] government of Pakistan has failed to protect the rights of the minorities.”
Police in Lahore said that they had arrested around 150 people accused of setting the Christian homes on fire after a non-Muslim was accused on Friday of making offensive comments about Prophet Muhammad.
“[It is] quite clear that [the] government of Pakistan has failed to protect the rights of the minorities.”
– Khalid Masih, Pastor
On Saturday, a group of Muslims burned about 170 houses in the Christian neighbourhood of Lahore.
Police said that those accused of rioting are being investigated for alleged arson, robbery, theft and terrorism.
Christians are often the target of Pakistan’s harsh blasphemy laws, which rights activists say are frequently used to persecute religious minorities or settle personal disputes.
Politicians have been reluctant to reform the laws for fear of being attacked by religious groups, as has happened in the past.
Police usually make arrests following rioting in blasphemy cases to calm down public anger and most of those detained are never convicted.
According to Human Rights Watch, there are at least 16 people on death row for blasphemy and another 20 are serving life sentences.
Two prominent politicians were assassinated in 2011 for urging reform of the law.