<Rights group defends controversial decision to hand over suspect
<Christian protesters demand government assistance
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with additional reporting by BosNewsLife’s Xavier P. William in Lahore, Pakistan
LAHORE, PAKISTAN (BosNewsLife)– A rights group has defended its controversial decision to help police detain a Christian man whose alleged offensive remarks about Islam’s Prophet Muhammad prompted angry Muslims to torch as many as 180 Christian-owned homes, shops and two churches in eastern Pakistan.
“After negotiations, and to avoid further destruction Savan Masih has been handed over to the police” in the city of Lahore, confirmed Joseph Francis, director of the Pakistan-based Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).
The group said its team rushed to Lahore’s Joseph Colony, the Christian neighborhood where the attacks took place, to help ease tensions and pressure authorities to intervene.
Police said Sunday, March 10, they “arrested” around 150 people accused of burning Christian properties, but the announcement did little to ease tensions.
Security forces were seen firing tear gas shells to disperse the protesters who blocked a Lahore highway to demand assistance from the government amid complains authorities did little to halt the violence, in which dozens were injured.
Protesters called a government offer of 200,000 rupees (about $2,000) for each family a joke. About 150 Christian families fled in anticipation of the attacks, some on the advice of local police, rights activists said.
Concerns increased Sunday, March 10, about the whereabouts of Masih, 26, with some questioning CLAAS’ role in his detention.
“In the wake of the riots, our team on the ground have provided safe haven for 11 Christian families,” said Farrukh H.Saif, the director of World Vision in Progress (WVIP), a Pakistan based Christian aid and advocacy group.
“We also tried to save Masih before he was arrested. However, the group that Masih entrusted his protection to actually turned him over to police,” he told BosNewsLife.
CLAAS suggested that it had no other option, with a Muslim mob rampaging through the streets and amid concerns for Masih’s safety.
Residents said the problems began Friday, March 8, when Masih was refused a hair cut by the local barber shop’s Muslim owner, Imran Shahid, triggering a heated exchange about religion between the two men.
Shahid, accompanied by supporters, reportedly told police that “drunk” Sawan Masih made “derogatory remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.”
Police said the young man was taken into custody pending an investigation into the blasphemy allegations.
As news of the incident spread, thousands of Muslims burned homes, shops, churches and even Bibles, according to local Christians.
Multan Khan, a senior police officer in Lahore, denied allegations that his forces were reluctant to intervene, saying several policemen were injured when they were hit with stones while trying to push back the rioters.
The incident has underscored international concerns over Pakistan’s blasphemy legislation, which can carry a death sentence.
At least 16 people are on death row for blasphemy and another 20 are serving a life sentences, according to advocacy group Human Rights Watch.
Last year, there was a rare reversal of a blasphemy case when a teenage Christian girl with suspected mental disabilities was accused of burning pages of the Koran.
Rimsha Masih denied the charges and was later released amid a massive domestic and international outcry about her
Tables turned when her accuser, an imam, was himself detained on charges of blasphemy.
Prosecutors claimed Imam Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chisht planted the Koranic papers in the girl‘s bag to ensure her conviction and push out Christians from an impoverished suburb of capital Islamabad.
He was later freed on bail.
It comes amid spreading Islamic militancy in the country.
In one of the latest attempts to halt the trend, a suspected U.S. missile strike killed a foreign militant who was riding on horseback in Datta Khel in North Waziristan region, The Associated Press news agency reported, citing Pakistani intelligence officials.
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