LAHORE (Reuters) - Police in Pakistan arrested dozens of people on Wednesday after a mob beat a Christian couple to death and burned their bodies for allegedly desecrating a Quran.
Blasphemy is a serious offence in conservative Muslim Pakistan where those accused are sometimes lynched on the spot.
The latest incident took place in a village in Punjab province on Tuesday when a local cleric told his community through the loudspeakers of his mosque to punish the couple for burning a few pages of the Quran, a police source said.
A mob then gathered outside the house of Shehzad Masih, 32, and his wife Shama, in her 20s, dragged them out and beat them to death, police said. Their bodies were then set on fire in a brick kiln where they worked.
"We have arrested 44 people, it was a local issue incited by the mullah of a local mosque," Jawad Qamar, a regional police chief, told Reuters. "No particular sectarian group or religious outfit was behind the attack."
Blasphemy charges, even when they go to court, are punishable by death in Muslim-majority Pakistan. They are hard to fight because the law does not define clearly what is blasphemous. Presenting the evidence can sometimes itself be considered a fresh infringement.
Christians make up about 4 percent of Pakistan's population and tend to keep a low profile in a country where Sunni Muslim militants frequently bomb targets they see as heretical, including Christians, and Sufi and Shi'ite Muslims.
Punjab police spokeswoman Nabila Ghazanfar said the couple, like many other poor Christians in the area, worked in a brick kiln owned by a local man who has also been arrested.
"Three days ago, a co-worker alleged that they had burnt pages of the holy Quran. On Tuesday morning, a mob gathered outside their house, dragged them out, beat and burnt them in the same kiln where they worked," she said.
All of Pakistan's minorities feel that the state fails to protect them, and even tolerates violence against them.
A local journalist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons, said police were too slow to act to protect the couple. "Police did not take it seriously. Later they sent five officers to the spot," the journalist said. "The couple was thrashed and burnt in their presence."
Last month a British man with a history of mental health illness, sentenced to death for blasphemy earlier this year, was shot by a prison guard in his cell.
Also in October, a Pakistani court upheld the death penalty against a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who is also accused of blasphemy, in a case that drew global headlines after two prominent politicians who tried to help her were assassinated.