A crowd vandalized eight churches and several homes following accusations of blasphemy against Islam in Pakistan’s most populated province of Punjab on Wednesday, according to government authorities and residents, stoking tensions between local Muslim and minority Christian communities.
The National Commission for Human Rights said the number of churches burnt “has risen to eight,” in an update on Wednesday, calling the situation “sad and shameful.”
According to a police report obtained by CNN, two Christian men were charged by local police in the town of Jaranwala on the grounds of “desecrating the holy Quran and abusing the Prophet Mohammed.” The report stated that the men had been booked under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.
Pakistani Christian communities are regularly targeted with the country’s strict blasphemy laws, which activists say have historically been manipulated to persecute minorities and isolate them from public life.
Yasir Talib, who works for the Centre for Social Justice and who was in the town at the time of the incident, said a crowd vandalized and set on fire the home of one Christian man accused of making blasphemous comments against Islam.
Multiple churches including the town’s Catholic Church, the Salvation Army Church and the Pentecostal Church, as well as the local Christian colony, were also vandalized and set on fire, Talib told CNN.
In a statement Wednesday, the assistant commissioner for Faisalabad, where the town is located, called for the deployment of armed forces to support enforcing law and order, describing the situation as “sensitive and vulnerable.”
Pakistan’s caretaker Prime Minister Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar condemned the violence, writing in a statement on X, formerly known as Twitter, that “stern action would be taken against those who violate law and target minorities.”
President Bishop for the Church of Pakistan Azad Marshall said the country’s “Bishops, Priests and lay people are deeply pained and distressed” by the incident.
“Bibles have been desecrated and Christians have been tortured and harassed having been falsely accused,” Marshall said on X, calling for “justice and action” by law enforcement and the legal system.
The National Commission for Human Rights, a government body in Pakistan, called the violence “sad and shameful.”
Riina Kionka, the EU ambassador to Pakistan, said the reports were “disturbing.”
“The degree to which a society’s minorities feel safe, in Pakistan, in the European Union, around the world, is a measure of respect for the rule of law, for tolerance of diversity, a core EU value,” she posted on X on Wednesday.
Pakistan is among the countries where blasphemy is a crime punishable by the death sentence.
In 2013, more than 100 homes of Christians were set ablaze by outraged Muslims in Lahore’s Badami Bagh community, after police arrested a 20-year-old man accused of speaking against the Prophet Mohammed.
Three years earlier, a mother of five from Punjab was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to hang, after she was accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed.
Asia Bibi was freed from death row in 2018, after she won her appeal against the conviction and death sentence.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated what happened to two Christian men. They were charged with blasphemy, according to a police report.