By Syed Raza Hassan
RAHIM YAR KHAN, Pakistan (Reuters) - The mob arrived at around midnight, brandishing clubs. They smashed statues, looted gold artifacts and then set the Hindu temple in Pakistan ablaze.
An accusation of blasphemy sparked the attack in the town of Larkana, human rights activists said, part of a spike in violence against Hindus in predominately Muslim Pakistan.
March was the worst month for attacks on Hindus in 20 years with five temples attacked, up from nine during the whole of 2013, said Life for All, a Pakistani rights group. But it's not just Hindus who feel victimized.
All of Pakistan's minorities - Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis and even Shi'ite Muslims - feel that the state fails to protect them, and even tolerates violence against them.
Many complain the problem has become worse since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who is seen as more conservative and indulgent of Islamists than his predecessor, came to power last year.
This raises questions about the state's pledge to rein in the militants who launch attacks into India and Afghanistan. The neighbors say the extremists act with the complicity of Pakistan's security agencies. Islamabad denies that
Non-Muslims make up a small fraction of the 180 million people in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the hero of the country's creation as a haven for the sub-continent's Muslims, ushered in independence in 1947 with a promise to minorities that they would enjoy freedom of worship and equality without discrimination.
But for many members of Pakistan's minorities those words ring hollow.
The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom said in a recent report that conditions in Pakistan had "hit an all-time low" and governments had failed to adequately protect minorities and arrest perpetrators of crimes against them.
"Pakistan is increasingly failing to protect its minorities for two broad reasons: principally, rising religious intolerance and the space ceded to violent ideologies," said Sherry Rehman, who was a government minister and ambassador to the United States under the previous Pakistani administration.
The security establishment has used Islamists for decades, against political opponents at home and to pursue aims in Afghanistan and against old rival India. But some militants, like the Pakistani Taliban, have turned on the state since Pakistan joined the U.S.-led war on militancy.
The government launched peace talks with the Taliban in February and rights activists fear that they and other militants have been emboldened by the talks to step up attacks on their minority-group enemies.
Activists also say the tolerance of militancy provides cover for opportunist attacks by those who just want to grab land, homes or businesses of minority neighbors under the guise of religion.
Hindus and members of other minorities say the situation has worsened since Sharif won an election last year. Sharif has close ties with Saudi Arabia, whose brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam is preached by many of the people who denounce minorities.
Saudi Arabia, the center of Sunni Islam, sees Pakistan as a bulwark against Shi'ite Muslim Iran and it has long supported hardliners in Pakistan. It recently gave the country a gift of $1.5 billion.
Whatever the cause of the surge of violence and abuse, many Pakistani Hindus in the richest province of Punjab are feeling beleaguered and increasingly looking to get out. More than 100 families are leaving for India each month, rights groups say.
Among those who have gone were Munawar Jee's brothers and their families after his married sister was kidnapped last year. Her abductors got her certified as a Muslim convert and re-married her off the next day. Recanting Islam would mean she could legally be put to death.
"Losing my sister is the biggest regret of my life," Jee told Reuters at his shoe shop in Punjab's Rahim Yar Khan district. He said he would soon join his family in India.
Hindus say their women are easy targets for rape or forced marriage. Temples are attacked and looted. Accusations of blasphemy, punishable by death, are increasingly being used to drive Hindus from their homes, they say.
Punjab, the prime minister's heartland, had until recently been a refuge for Hindus compared with some other areas.
But the province has also become a power base for militant groups, many of which have been nurtured by the security agencies and appeased by the politicians seeking votes.
"The militant groups work with impunity as they enjoy support from the state functionaries. They cannot work without some level of support," said veteran rights campaigner I.A. Rehman.
If the militants' treatment of minorities can be seen as a reflection of the state's acceptance of the groups, then people hoping the security forces will follow through on government vows to crack down on those responsible for violence would seem wise to be cautious.
"It is difficult to say if the security establishment has come out of its 'good Taliban'/'bad Taliban' mindset," said prominent lawyer and human rights campaigner Asma Jahangir, referring to the military's propensity to accept some groups while fighting others.
Federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid did not return calls seeking comment on policy towards minorities. A Punjab government spokesman rejected the suggestion that authorities were not doing enough to help Hindus.
"The government is committed to protect its religious minorities," said Shoaib Bin Aziz, adding he was not aware of an increase of Hindus leaving. He denied that the provincial government was soft on militancy.
"Terrorists are not friends of anyone," he said. "The Punjab government does not have soft corner for any terrorist organization."
Hindu activist Kirshan Sharma said such reassurances meant little. The government was talking to the Taliban but refused to protect Hindus, he said.
"Pakistan has kneeled before the Taliban by holding talks," Sharma said. "What hope can Hindus see in the country's future?"
(Reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Robert Birsel)