AMRITSAR, India -- Hundreds of angry Muslims in southeast Bangladesh torched at least 10 Buddhist temples and dozens of homes Sunday after alleging that a Buddhist man insulted Islam on his Facebook page, authorities said.
The protest gained momentum late Saturday in the area of Cox’s Bazar about 200 miles from the capital of Dhaka when Muslims, claiming that a Facebook page showed a burned copy of the Koran, headed to several Buddhist villages in the area.
Although there have been periodic clashes between the majority Muslim population and Hindus, tension is relatively rare with Buddhists, who make up less than 1% of Bangladesh’s 150 million people.
Authorities said extra security forces were called in to restore order after the mob burned and vandalized more than 100 homes.
"We brought the situation under control before dawn and imposed restrictions on public gatherings," Salim Mohammad Jahangir, Cox's Bazar district police superintendent, told local media.
Analysts said this clash was unfortunate and disturbing given a general pattern of tolerance of religious minorities in Bangladesh, which gained its independence from Pakistan in 1971.
“This comes as a real surprise, and I feel sadness that this happened,” said Manzoor Hasan, advisor to the Institute of Governance Studies at Dhaka’s BRAC University. “Generally, not just with Buddhists, but the small Christian community and relatively larger Hindu community, as a society we’ve been tolerant and respectful of each other’s religions and ways of conducting ourselves.”
Tensions have increased in recent months, however, over a crisis in neighboring Myanmar involving clashes between the majority Buddhist population and members of the minority stateless Rohingya Muslim community, in some ways a mirror image of Sunday’s attacks.
Many people in predominantly Muslim Bangladesh also have been angered recently by a low-budget film called "Innocence of Muslims" that was made in California and mocks the prophet Muhammad. It has sparked protests across the Islamic world.
“Generally, there is extra sensitivity at this moment, not just in Bangladesh, but in other countries,” Hasan said. “We see people taking advantage of this, and there are copy-cat tendencies. The population as a whole needs to be far more vigilant in protecting minorities.… We all need to be a bit more careful and circumspect so we don’t incite sensitivities.”
Bangladesh's English-language Daily Star newspaper reported that the Buddhist who allegedly posted the offensive image on Facebook mistakenly tagged it on his Facebook profile and that his account was closed soon after violence erupted even as police escorted him and his mother to safety.
-- Mark Magnier
Photo: The Shima Bihar Buddhist temple at Ramu, about 200 miles southeast of the capital of Dhaka, was burned Sunday after thousands of rioters attacked Buddhist temples and homes in southeastern Bangladesh over a photo deemed offensive to Islam was posted on Facebook. Credit: AFP / Getty Images