PAKISTAN: PASTORS ARRESTED FOR USE OF LOUDSPEAKERS


Police claim amplified Easter Sunday service defamed Islam.

ISTANBUL, May 27 (Compass Direct News) – Nine pastors from two neighboring villages in Pakistan could face prison time for using loudspeakers to broadcast prayers and sermons from their churches on Easter Sunday.

Martinpur and Youngsnabad, 150 kilometers (93 miles) east of Lahore, are majority Christian villages. The nine pastors who lead congregations there say that local Muslim security forces have twisted the law to solicit a bribe.

Police arrested and detained Hafeez Gill, Fahim John, Maksud Ulkaq, and a catechist from the Catholic Church in Youngsnabad identified only as Saqab at 10 a.m. on May 16. While en route to the police station, the officers told them they would be released if they offered a bribe, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). The pastors refused and were detained, but following a public outcry from their parishioners they were released at 2:30 p.m.

Reports indicate the arrest was premeditated. A leader in the village council invited the pastors to his house for a meeting, but when they arrived in the morning local police were waiting for them.

They were taken to the police station, where Station House Officer Mirza Latif showed them two First Instance Reports (FIR) registered on May 11 claiming they had misused their speakers. The FIRs, however, state the pastors misused the speakers on Easter Sunday, which happened nearly a month earlier.

The FIRs accused the pastors of misusing their loudspeakers under Section 3/4 of the Amplifier Act. Their attorney said the reasons for their arrest were both religiously and financially motivated.

Police claimed that the church leaders had used their loudspeakers to amplify messages defaming Islam. The FIRs, however, make no mention of the content of their remarks.

“The police wanted to cause humiliation to the pastors and were also asking for money,” said CLAAS attorney Akhbar Durrani.

The case was registered by a special branch of local police forces charging the four Youngsnabad pastors. On the same day, they filed charges against the five pastors in Martinpur: Shahazad Kamarul-Zaman, Mumbarab Kuhram, Hanuk Daniel, Amar Sohail, and a fifth pastor unnamed in the police report.

Nasir Bahatti, president of the Youth Welfare Association in Youngsnabad, a Christian social organization, said the church had permission to amplify the service and that the arrests were religiously motivated.

“There is no reason to ban the loudspeaker,” he said. “They are banning our worship and prayer. But we have permission [to use them] on particular days such as Christmas and Easter.”

If the FIRs are not withdrawn, the pastors will go to court over the alleged loudspeaker violation. Police released them from jail on May 16 under the condition that they obtain bail at an upcoming hearing.

The church loudspeakers broadcasted the church prayers and sermon for villagers unable to attend the service, as is custom in some Christian villages. Pakistani law limits the use of loudspeakers in Christian worship services to a specific time allotment (and usually to villages and towns with a small Muslim population), but these restrictions were not enforced in the almost-entirely Christian villages of Youngsnabad and Martinpur.

Few such restrictions, however, are placed on Pakistani mosques. The five daily calls to prayer, Friday sermons, and Quran recitations on Islamic holidays are frequently amplified on loudspeakers. The double standard follows a traditional Islamic dictum in which church bells were not allowed to ring in areas under Islamic rule.

“The Muslims in this nation can worship according to their prayer method, so why can’t we if we are all given equal rights?” Bahatti said.

The standard of living is relatively high in these villages due to a well-educated population. There are longstanding missionary schools in the villages, and much of the population has lived abroad. English missionaries founded Youngsnabad and Martinpur 120 years ago during British colonial occupation.

Some rights groups worry that the harassment of Pakistani Christians in villages such as Martinpur and Youngsnabad could mean deteriorating conditions for religious minorities in areas once considered secure.

CLAAS reported that vandals completely ransacked a church in Bannu Cantt, in the North West Frontier Province, on May 12. They destroyed the altar, burned Bibles, and broke pews. Although the city is located in a province that borders Afghanistan, where Taliban rebels have been active, it was thought to be a relatively secure area, according to the report.

Pakistan remains in turmoil as the military moves into Swat Valley to uproot the Taliban, which has established Islamic law (sharia) in the embattled area. An estimated 2 million Pakistanis have become refugees by fleeing the area after a government evacuation order.

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News