Bangladeshi Buddhists attacked over photo of burned Qur'an

Hundreds of Buddhists who fled their southern Bangladesh villages in the wake of attacks by Muslims angered by a Facebook photo of a burned Qur'an started returning home Monday amid heightened security and more than 160 arrests.

Muslims burn temples and homes in anger at Facebook picture

A Bangladeshi Buddhist monk checks the remains of burned religious books at a Buddhist temple which was torched in an overnight weekend attack in Ramu in the coastal district of Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, Monday. (A.M.Ahad/Associated Press)

Hundreds of Buddhists who fled their southern Bangladesh villages in the wake of attacks by Muslims started returning home Monday amid heightened security and more than 160 arrests.

The Buddhists moved to safety after an overnight weekend attack in which thousands of Bangladeshi Muslims burned at least 10 Buddhist temples and 40 homes in anger over a Facebook photo of a burned Qur'an.

Army soldiers, paramilitary border guards and police were deployed, and the government has banned all public gatherings in the troubled areas near the southern border with Myanmar, said Lt. Col. Jaed Hossain, a military commander who was helping to install tents for displaced Buddhists.

"They are coming back. We are giving them protection," Hossain said at Merunglua village in the coastal district of Cox's Bazar on Monday.

Home Minister Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters in Dhaka on Monday that security officials detained 166 people in Cox's Bazar and neighbouring Chittagong district in connection with the attacks. Hossain said about 1,000 Buddhist families fled their homes after the attacks were launched late Saturday.

As the unrest continued through early Sunday, many Buddhist-owned homes and shops were looted. Nojibul Islam, a Cox's Bazar police chief, said at least 20 people were injured.

Lost everything

Many in the impoverished neighbourhood of Merunglua lost everything.

"I was in my shop. They suddenly came and set my shop on fire," grocery owner Prodip Barua told The Associated Press. "I started running and took my two children and wife from my home and fled the area."

He knew his shop had been burned to ashes, but when he returned Monday he was shocked to see that his home was also destroyed. "How will I survive now? How will I send my children to schools?" he sobbed. "I have lost everything."

The government has pledged to rebuild the victims' homes.

Home Minister Alamgir said after visiting the area that the affected people would get security and support from the government. The attacks began after a photo of a burned copy of the Muslim holy book was posted on Facebook. The rioters blamed the photo on a 25-year-old local Buddhist, though it was not immediately clear if he actually posted the photo.

Only about 300,000 Bangladeshis, or about 0.2 per cent of the country's 150 million people, are Facebook users.

Facebook account closed

Bangladesh's English-language Daily Star newspaper quoted the man blamed for the photos as saying that someone else mistakenly tagged it on his Facebook profile. The newspaper reported that soon after the violence started, the man's Facebook account was closed and police escorted him and his mother to safety.

Joinul Bari, chief government administrator in Cox's Bazar, said authorities detained the man's parents and were investigating. Buddhists make up less than one per cent of Muslim-majority Bangladesh, but followers of the two religions usually coexist peacefully.

Some of the Buddhist families displaced by the attacks took shelter at the homes of Muslim neighbours, and on Monday, many Muslim families offered food to the victims.

The Bangladeshi violence follows protests that erupted in Muslim countries over the past month after a low-budget film produced by a U.S. citizen denigrated the Prophet Muhammad by portraying Islam's holiest figure as a fraud, womanizer and child molester.

Some two dozen demonstrators have been killed in protests that attacked symbols of U.S. and the West, including diplomatic compounds.