KARACHI, Pakistan (AP) - A group of Muslims suspected of ransacking a Hindu temple in southern Pakistan may be charged with blasphemy, police said Sunday. The case is a rare twist on the use of the country's harsh blasphemy laws, which are more often invoked against supposed offenses to Islam as opposed to minority faiths.
The laws, sections of which carry the death penalty or life imprisonment, have drawn renewed international scrutiny this year after a young Christian girl in Islamabad was alleged to have desecrated the Muslim holy book, the Quran. A Muslim cleric now stands accused of fabricating evidence against the girl, who has been freed on bail and whose mental capacity has been questioned.
Police officer Mohammad Hanif said the anti-Hindu attack took place Sept. 21. The government had declared that day a national holiday - a "Day of Love for the Prophet" - and called on people to demonstrate peacefully against a U.S.-made anti-Islam film that has sparked protests throughout the Muslim world. Those rallies took a violent turn in Pakistan, and more than 20 people were killed.
Hanif said dozens of Muslims led by a cleric converged on the outskirts of Karachi in a Hindu neighborhood commonly known as Hindu Goth. The protesters attacked the Sri Krishna Ram temple, broke religious statues, tore up a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu scripture, and beat up the temple's caretaker, Sindha Maharaj.
"The attackers broke the statues of (Hindu deities) Radha, Hanuman, Parwati and Krishna, and took away the decorative gold ornaments," Maharaj said. "They also stormed my home and snatched the gold jewelry of my family, my daughters."
Maharaj and other Hindu leaders turned to the police, who registered a case against the cleric and eight other Muslims. But none of the suspects had been found as of Sunday, Hanif said.
The police officer said the case against the attackers was registered under Section 295-A of the blasphemy laws, which covers the "outraging of religious feelings." That section of the law can carry a fine or up to 10 years imprisonment, but, if the case were to proceed, it's unclear exactly what punishment would be imposed.
Court decisions in the past have often confused what penalties should be applied in blasphemy cases in Pakistan. And although many blasphemous acts are said to require the death penalty, Pakistan is not known to have executed anyone under the law. Still, many of the accused have been killed by extremists outside the courts.
Human rights activists say the blasphemy laws are too broad and vague, and that they often are used by people seeking to settle scores with rivals, or as a means of targeting Christians, Hindus and other members of minority religions. Pakistan has some 180 million people and is 95 percent Muslim.
Islamic conservatism, as well as extremism, is on the rise here, and even speaking out against the blasphemy laws can put people in danger. Two prominent politicians, including the sole Christian member of the federal Cabinet, were assassinated in 2011 for urging reform of the law.