LAHORE, Pakistan - Hundreds of Christians clashed with police across Pakistan on Sunday, a day after a Muslim mob burned dozens of homes owned by members of the minority religious group in retaliation for alleged insults against Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
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 radicals, as has happened in the past.
The plight of Pakistan's other religious minorities, such as Shiite Muslims, Hindus and Ahmadis, has also deepened in recent years as hard-line interpretations of Islam have gained ground and militants have stepped up attacks against groups they oppose. Most Pakistanis are Sunni Muslims.
The latest incident began Friday after a Muslim in the eastern city of Lahore accused a Christian man of blasphemy - an offense punishable by life in prison or even death. A day later, hundreds of angry Muslims rampaged through the Christian neighborhood, burning about 170 houses.
Authorities have arrested 160 suspected members of the mob, many of whom were identified through TV footage and photos published in newspapers, said police Officer Abdur Rehman.
But it remains to be seen whether anyone will be held to account. Mob violence is not uncommon after blasphemy allegations, and police often round up large numbers of suspects. However, these arrests rarely result in actual convictions.
There have been no convictions related to a deadly attack on Christians in 2009 in the eastern city of Gojra that was also sparked by blasphemy allegations, the Express Tribune newspaper reported Sunday. Angry Muslims burned dozens of houses in Gojra, killing eight Christians - seven of them from one family trapped in a burning home.
No Christians were hurt in Saturday's attack in Lahore because they fled the area overnight before the mob arrived. But police were criticized for failing to prevent the mob from attacking the Christians' homes.
The largest demonstrations on Sunday were in Lahore and the southern city of Karachi. About 1,000 people protested in both places, and smaller demonstrations were held in the capital, Islamabad, and the adjoining city of Rawalpindi.
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, said police official Malik Awais. Police fired tear gas canisters and used batons to disperse the demonstrators, he said.
Government spokesman Pervaiz Rasheed promised the government would help the Christians rebuild their houses, but the protesters expressed dissatisfaction with the way the government was handling the incident.