Days of rioting between Christians and Muslims in eastern Pakistan following allegations that a Quran was defiled escalated Saturday, leaving six Christians dead, including a child, authorities said.
Members of a banned Muslim organization began torching Christian homes in the Punjabi city of Gora on Thursday after accusing them of desecrating pages from Islam's holy book, Federal Minister for Minorities Shahbaz Bhatti said.
"There is no truth in the allegation," he told The Associated Press, adding that he had himself visited Gojra on Friday and asked police to provide protection to Christians who were facing threats.
He accused the police of ignoring his instructions and said hundreds of radical Muslims on Saturday burned more Christians homes and killed six, including four women and a child.
Television footage from the scene showed houses burning and streets strewn with debris and blackened furniture as mobs ran at each other. Local media also reported gunfights had broken out between Christian and Muslim communities and that rioters had blocked the local railway line.
Pakistan is predominantly a Sunni Muslim state where Christians are a tiny minority. Although the two sides generally live peacefully, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S., pro-Taliban militants have periodically targeted churches and Christians, suspecting them of sympathizing with Washington.
'Miscreants and extremists'
Bhatti said the attackers belonged to the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba group, which is accused of launching attacks against the security forces and carrying out bombs attacks at public places in the country in recent years.
Punjab law minister Rana Sanaullah said authorities had investigated the allegation of a Quran being defaced "and our initial reports say that there has not been any incident of desecration."
Sanaullah said that although the situation had calmed down by Friday, "some miscreants and extremists entered the city today and pushed people toward armed clashes."
Another minister, Dost Mohammad Khosa, said the issue of the alleged desecration had been settled.
"Today, somebody opened fire at a peaceful rally that was passing by a Christian neighborhood. That made things worse. We are sure some miscreant elements have tried to exploit the situation," he said.
Faislabad Commissioner Tahir Hussain told local television that representatives of the two communities were to meet later Saturday in an effort to calm the situation.
"Let's hope for the best. The emotions of the Muslims are very high," he said. "And the Christians again they have faced the wrath and they have faced the casualties, and their emotions are also very high."
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