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ISLAMABAD - Armed men may have burned down a yoga center in Pakistan after it was criticized during a provocative television talk show, local observers said Monday.
The Art of Living, a non-profit organization whose spiritual leader is an Indian yogi, was set on fire Saturday evening, three weeks after outspoken television anchor Arshad Sharif suggested it was a potential threat to Pakistan’s national security.
The two nuclear armed nations are fierce rivals and have fought four wars and countless skirmishes.
In a Feb. 14 episode of his prime-time show "Kyoon?” - meaning "Why?” – Sharif suggested that the facility’s spiritual leader, India yoga guru Sri Sri Ravi Sankar, “could be a national security threat to Pakistan” by having access to important officials.
The center's president, Naeem Zamindar, said the facility - which is registered in compliance with Pakistani law - was a retreat meant for spreading happiness.
The center, in Islamabad’s affluent Bani Gala suburb, was attacked at about 8 p.m. local time [10 a.m. ET] Saturday, police said. "Eight to nine armed men approached the yoga center. They then proceeded to round up and tie up all three watchmen, and then went on to take their time to burn the place with the petrol they were carrying," said Mohammad Imran, the Assistant Duty Officer of the Bani Gala police station.
There was an angry response on social media, where Sharif's detractors likened him to Meher Bokhari, another Pakistan anchor whose television face-off with a liberal governor, Salman Taseer, was said to have led to the latter's assassination in 2011.
On Pakistan Tea House, a liberal blog, a clip of SHARIF'S show was published along with the caption: "Media back to work. Last time, they had incited violence against [governor] Salmaan Taseer and got him martyred. Now their show has resulted in the attack and destruction of Art of Living Center in Islamabad."
Sharif told NBC News that the show had discussed “accountability of all these foreign organizations in Pakistan - that’s it.”
“There was much more going on than yoga at that place,” he added. “There are democratic and national security implications to our work and debate. And there is a need for accountability for every dollar spent in Pakistan,” he said.
Raza Rumi, a broadcast journalist who appears on Express News, a rival channel to that of Sharif, said: "Sadly, Pakistani broadcast media has turned into a vehicle which articulates public prejudices at large. But in this case I would hesitate to make a direct connection between the show and the events that happened."
He instead blamed the Pakistan government for failing to tackle extremism. "What's of concern is the encirclement of Islamabad by jihadi organizations and seminaries that preach violence. Sure, the media has a part to play. But ultimately the state is failing to fulfill its obligations to protect its citizens."
Alastair Jamieson contributed to this report from London.