Christians Accused of Desecrating Quran Freed in Pakistan


Country’s notorious ‘blasphemy’ law used against innocent father, daughter.

LAHORE, Pakistan, December 16 (CDN) — A Christian in Faisalabad district and his 20-year-old daughter were released on Monday (Dec. 14) after 14 grueling months in jail on false charges of blaspheming the Quran.

Khalil Tahir, attorney for Gulsher Masih and his daughter Ashyana Gulsher (known as Sandal), said the case was typical of the way Pakistan’s blasphemy laws can be used to harass innocent Christians.

“Christians are the soft targets, and most of the people implicated in these inhumane laws are Christians,” Tahir said. “We Christians are fighting for the same, noble goal – to provide justice to the victims of blasphemy laws.”

Masih said that inmates beat him at least five times since he was arrested on Oct. 23, 2008. His daughter was arrested two weeks earlier, on Oct. 10.

“These long 14 months seemed like ages,” Masih told Compass. “There was one inmate, Ghulam Fareed, a rich man, who always harassed me, trying to coerce me to convert to Islam by saying he would make me rich and would send me abroad.”

Fareed, who also promised high quality education for Masih’s children, joined with Islamic extremists jailed for terrorist acts to beat him in an effort to force him to “come into the fold of Islam,” Masih said. While in jail, he said, his wife told him that their daughter had been beaten several times by the superintendent of police.

Masih and his daughter were charged under Section 295-B of the Pakistan Penal Code for blaspheming the Quran. Before charges were filed in October 2008, Masih said an initial incident occurred on Aug. 25, when Ashyana Gulsher found some burned pages of the Quran in a garbage dump outside their community of Chak No. 57, Chak Jhumra in the district of Faisalabad.

Masih said she handed the charred pages to a woman, Lubana Taj, saying, “These are the holy page of your Quran and I found them in the garbage, so you take it.”

There were still some pages left, which she gave to their neighbor, Khalida Rafiq, who burned them, he said.

“She had borrowed wheat from us a few weeks ago, and when my wife demanded it back, Khalida Rafiq said that we had burned pages of the Quran and was now accusing us of taking wheat,” Masih said. “Some other women of the village also accused my children of making paper airplanes of the pages of the Quran.”

The escalating conflict was defused with the help of other neighbors who knew the truth, he said, and local Muslim cleric Amam Hafiz Muhammad Ali also intervened, saying Masih’s daughter had done a good deed and questioning why the neighbor women were repaying her with evil.

“We thought that the matter was buried, but it arose again on Oct. 7, 2008,” Masih said. On that day 20-year-old Muhammad Qasim went throughout the village on bicycle exclaiming that Christians had burned the Quran, Masih said. Upon hearing this, village landlord Rana Sarwar called Masih and told him that his children had burned the Quran and had used pages to make paper airplanes.

“I told them that I was working in Asghar Christian Colony and never knew about the incident, and the son who had been accused of blasphemy had gone to school,” Masih said.

His accusers were unmoved, he said.

“In the evening when I was returning home, I heard announcements from several mosques that Christians had burned the Quran,” he said. “After hearing the announcement, people began pouring in. These announcements were made by Tariq son of Hafeez, Maqbool son of Hafeez and Maulana Tawaseel Bajwa.”

When Masih called emergency police, they arrested him and sent him to the Jhumra police station, Faisalabad.

“The police asked me where my children were, and when I told them that the children were in the village, the police went back to arrest them,” he said. “Rana Sarwar, Wajid Khan and Rana Naeem Khan came into the police station and argued that my children had blasphemed, so why was I the one being beaten? I told Rana Sarwar in front of the police that if my children have done this, then I was ready to bear consequences.”

Police told them that the crowd outside wanted to hang him and that this was why they had arrested him. Masih said that the next day Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Yousuf Zai came and asked him why he had committed blasphemy.

“Rana Sarwar then told the DSP that it was all a political ploy, and that I had been implicated in the case for voting for the opposition party,” he said. “If that day those Christian Members of Parliamentary Assembly had spoken up, then the police complaint wouldn’t have been registered against me.”

Masih added that the station house officer felt that he was innocent but had become legally entangled due to lack of support from the community. Masih said that the next day, Oct. 8, a few Muslims gave conflicting statements against him when charges were filed.

“One said he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 10 a.m., the other said that he saw me burning the pages at 12 p.m. and still another said that he saw me burning the pages of the Quran at 2 p.m.,” he said. “When I was sent in jail, the investigation office swore that I was innocent.”

In a further contradiction, the complainants accused him of cutting up pages of the Quran and tossing them in the air, not burning them, Tahir said.

The complainant in the case was Mohammad Farooq Alam, and other prosecution witnesses named were Mohammad Maqbool Ahmad and Mohammad Akber, according to Tahir.

Masih said that initially he appeared before Judge Zulfikar Lon, but that whenever a judge asked for witnesses, he was transferred.

“In this manner eight months passed, and then Judge Raja Mohammad Ghazanfar came” and refused to be transferred, Masih said.

After Tahir’s cross-examination of witnesses, Ghazanfar dropped all charges and ordered their release.

“During cross examination, I proved that the whole case was concocted, frivolous, fake and that the charges against the accused Christian brother were unfounded,” Tahir said.

Tahir said that he had provided only legal assistance to the victims, with Johnson Michael, chairman of the Bishop John Joseph Shaheed Trust, providing paralegal assistance. An MPA in the Punjab Parliament, Tahir is the body’s secretary for Human Rights and Minority Affairs and also serves as executive director of advocacy group Action Against Discriminatory Laws Trust Pakistan.

Report from Compass Direct News 

PAKISTAN: MUSLIMS ATTACK 110 HOMES OF CHRISTIANS


Beating of field worker leads to hatchet attack on his family, then on all village Christians.

LAHORE, Pakistan, July 3 (Compass Direct News) – After a Muslim beat a Christian field worker for asking him to let him pass on Tuesday (June 30), a cleric in a village near here used a mosque loudspeaker to announce a call to attack Christians that resulted in more than 500 Muslims ransacking and looting at least 110 houses.

With the mosque falsely broadcasting the accusation that the Christian had blasphemed Islam, the Muslim recruits rampaged through Kasur district’s Bahmaniwala village, breaking down gates, wrecking and plundering homes and in some cases beating Christian women. They set various items ablaze including vehicles, though Compass found fire damage to homes was minimal.

“We don’t even have potable water, as they have damaged the turbine,” villager Zareena Bibi told Compass. “We knew about the incident, but could never imagine that they would wreak such devastation. They have not spared a single house here.”

Outraged that the lower-class Christian field worker on his tractor had asked the Muslim to move out of his way, 15 to 20 Muslims had previously mounted a hatchet attack on the family of the field worker, 37-year-old Sardar Masih, wounding his brother’s head, family members told Compass.

Masih told Compass that after his family members had sought treatment at a local hospital – where medical staff members denied them local anesthesia for their stitches because they were Christians – they learned that a call to gather had been issued from a local mosque regarding the altercation.

“We were told that in that meeting they decided to blame Christians for blasphemy of their Islamic religion,” Masih told Compass. The Muslims in the meeting, he added, then schemed with Muslim cleric Muhammad Latif of Maanwala, who appealed from the mosque loudspeaker for villagers to gather to “teach Christians an exemplary lesson.”

Latif, who heads a vigilante group called Sunni Force, also managed to recruit Muslims from other hamlets, Masih said. Soon the number of Muslims swelled to 500 to 800, according to the eyewitnesses.

The ensuing attack began with the breaking of electricity meters at 110 homes, cutting their power, area Christians said.

Damages and Threats

Masih told Compass the triggering incident began when he and his 10-year-old son, Waqas Masih, were returning from the fields on a tractor at 7 p.m.

“When we entered the village, Muhammad Hussein and his nephew had parked their motorbike in the middle of the road,” Masih said. “I requested them to get it aside, and Hussein said that he did not know how a ‘sweeper’ [chuhra, a derogatory term designating lower-class Christians] could order him. I was with my son, and I only requested them to let us go as we are getting late.”

He said Hussein was drunk from a nearby wedding celebration.

“I only made the request, and then they got up on the tractor and dragged me down and began beating me,” Masih said. “Then my son ran home and told my family members.”

Masih’s brother, 32-year-old Ashraf Masih, told Compass that he was at home when Waqat arrived out of breath saying that two men were beating his father. Ashraf Masih and brothers Mushtaq Masih, 35, Tariq Masih, 25, and Shahbaz Masih, along with their cousins Shafiq and Vikram Masih and 65-year-old father Chanan Masih, rushed to the site. By the time they arrived, Ashraf Masih said, a large crowd had gathered, but they were only exchanging harsh words and the conflict was cooling down.

“I told Muhammad Hussein that whoever he is, he has no right to lord it over them,” Ashraf Masih told Compass, adding that as they were leaving Hussein asked how could chuhras talk to them that way.

After the brief encounter, Ashraf Masih said, they went home back, not knowing that Hussein and his cohorts were planning to attack them. After half an hour, he said, Hussein and 15 to 20 other men armed with sticks and hatchets launched their assault on their house.

“They broke the door and smaller walls, and they beat my father, my mother and paternal uncle,” he said.

An assailant delivered a blow with hatchet to the head of his brother Mushtaq Masih, Ashraf Masih said, and blood gushed out. Other brothers also received hatchet wounds.

“When we realized that our life was in danger, we recklessly fought and made them flee,” he said. “Three of their men were also injured, but I don’t know their names.”

Afterward village official Muhammad Shafiq went to the family and warned them not to go to police, he said.

“We followed his advice, but he cheated on us,” Ashraf Masih said. “He took the Muslim party to the police station, where they got an FIR [First Information Report] registered, and then Shafiq and Manawala Deputy Mayor [Zulfiqar Ali] Bhutto took them to a hospital to get a medico-legal report.”

The family learned 90 minutes after the altercation that the Muslim assailants had gone to the police station, he said.

“Then we also rushed to the Sadar police station, but the police told us that an FIR had already been registered of the incident so they could not write another report,” Ashraf Masih said. “Then we went to Kasur Civil Hospital to obtain medical treatment, but when we entered the hospital they were already sitting there, and with them were Muhammad Shafiq and Dr. Bhutto.”

The injured Masih family members were shocked, he said, to learn that Shafiq had brought the assailants to the hospital but had told them not to go to the police station or the hospital for treatment.

After waiting for hours for medical treatment with no one paying them any attention, he said, at 5 a.m. their wounds were stitched without local anesthesia.

“The medical staff treated us like animals, and even made us sit outside all night,” Ashraf Masih said.

After the received basic first-aid treatment, Ashraf Masih said, his brother Sardar Masih suggested that they not go home for a few days, as the police had filed the Muslim assailants’ FIR. “Only our women were at home when our house was attacked the next day,” he said.

In spite of the assault on the family the day of the triggering incident, local Christians said no one foresaw the attack on the community on Wednesday (July 1).

“We thought that it was just an ordinary clash and would settle down with the passage of time, but they not only came back and attacked us, they then did havoc to all Christian families,” said Chanan Masih, the brothers’ father, adding that there was no justification for the attack on all the Christian villagers. “We used to visit their houses and even respected their Muslim call to prayer.”

On that day most of the men were away harvesting crops and others had gone to the Lahore Vegetable Market to sell them, while still others were busy getting Christians bailed out in the case filed against them. Area Christians said that most of their homes were therefore defenseless.

The Muslim mobs entered homes where mostly women and children were present and in some instances beat the women, local Christians said. In other instances, they said, women ran up to their roofs or to nearby fields and hid themselves to save their honor and lives.

“In one sad instance, a young girl who was taking bath got so nervous that she ran to the fields stark naked,” said one local Christian. “Such was the perilous state after 15 to 20 men entered each Christian house after breaking down gates.”

Throughout the violence that began about 7:30 p.m. and lasted two hours, area Christians said, the assailants threatened to throw all Christians out of the village.

Local resident Zareena Bibi told Compass that the looters stole from her son, Vikram Bashir, money from recent crop sales – 200,000 rupees (US$2,470) – along with 70,000 rupees (US$865) in cash gathered at his marriage the previous week. The attackers also stole a gold ornament from his bride worth 30,000 rupees (US$370).

Naseem Masih told Compass that her family had gold and more than 200,000 rupees looted. Amid broken glass, she pointed toward damages to two doors, a window grill, a fan, crockery and kitchen utensils that could no longer be used. Her mother-in-law said that they made her remove her gold earrings.

“My son got married only three months ago,” said one area Christian. “They took out new clothes from trunks and threw them on the floor so that they may not remain useful. They also gathered such articles and put them on fire. They were shouting that they would throw out these ‘sweepers’ from here.”

Sardar Masih said that his family’s house was especially hard-hit during the violence and looting. The attackers not only damaged his tractor, he said, but they put sandy soil in its engine that rendered it nonfunctional. The tractor was the main source of income for the family, he added, and without it they were left virtually unemployed.

“They have tried to make us completely poor and without any home,” he said.

Expel and Ostracize

Similarly, Naseem Masih told Compass that the assailants had burned their 10 donkey carts. And a few area Christians also reported that some families had been deprived of the dowries they had accumulated over the years for their daughters yet to be given in marriage.

Local resident Allah Ditta told Compass that he had gone to Lahore Market to sell crops.

“We were informed over the phone that Muslims had attacked us,” he said, adding that the assailants beat his wife and children and also looted 100,000 rupees (US$1,235) from his home.

Local Christians said that on Wednesday (July 1), at about 2 p.m. several young Muslims gathered and began chanting slogans calling for the expulsion of Christians, saying, “We will not let them live here.” By 2:30 p.m., the area mosque was announcing that no shop should provide anything to Christians and that they should totally ostracize them.

“This announcement was made by Maulvi Latif,” one Christian said. Maulvi is an honorific referring to an expert in Islamic law.

Another Christian said that Latif had twice before created problems for Christians, though on a smaller scale. Area Christians and Muslims have lived next to each other peaceably for more than a century and had good relations, village Christians said.

“There has never been any such incident before,” said one Christian.

When Compass entered the village and asked about the conflicts this week, Muslims claimed complete ignorance of them.

Talks and Restoration

The Community Development Initiative (CDI) advocacy group is facilitating talks between the two sides, though mistrust still runs high in the area, said CDI Research Officer Napoleon Qayyum. He said the CDI requested that Water and Power and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) Managing Director Tahir Basharat Cheema ensure that electricity be restored to the houses of Christians.

After the request, electricity was provisionally restored to several Christian families until new electricity meters are installed, he said, adding that WAPDA has begun installing new electricity meters at no cost as well. Qayyum said that Mushtaq Masih had requested that the CDI take up the case of the brothers, and that the organization would provide legal assistance to others who were injured with the help of the American Center of Law and Justice (ACLJ).

CDI is also providing meals to all 110 families, he said.

“Our partner, ACLJ, is constantly monitoring the situation and is providing its full support in this difficult time,” Qayyum said. Several Christian organizations were visiting the area and providing help to the injured, he said, adding that the only area church building was unaffected by the assault.

Muslim Leaders Appalled

Among Muslim leaders, Pakistan Peoples Party Member of Provincial Assembly (MPA) Chaudhry Ahmed Ali Tohlu told Compass that the culprits must be brought to justice. Tohlu asserted that Muslims would be able to repeat such violence only over his dead body and those of other like-minded Muslim leaders.

“I am born in a Muslim family, but today I am feeling bad because of what my fellow Muslims have done,” he said.

Member of National Assembly Sheikh Wasim of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz said, “Christians are our brothers and sisters, and what has been done to them is very unjust, and being a Muslim I apologize to the Christian community in my capacity.”

Divisional Police Officer Kasur Sultan said the violence “is a shameful incident,” and Union Council Nazim Sardar Fakhir said, “We all are ashamed, and those who instigated the matter should be brought to book.”

Human Rights and Minority Affairs Provincial Minister Kamran Michael said that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had told him over the phone to go to the village and express solidarity with the Christian community. He pledged that all damages would be covered by the government.

“Our religion teaches peace, so we should forgive the culprits, but the government will take action against the culprits,” Michael said.

MPA Joel Amir Sahotra condemned the looting that characterized the attack.

In the aftermath of the violence, police, civil administration, politicians and Christians of the area met, CDI’s Qayyum said, and established a 12-member committee to keep watch and inform authorities of any wrongdoing.

“Till the time things are normalized, anyone found fueling the matter would be punished, and the committee is responsible for informing the police,” he said. “After the meeting, Deputy Mayor Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and I went together in the mosque and Bhutto made a public announcement on the loudspeaker.”

The deputy mayor announced from the mosque that what took place was shameful and that all the shops must resume selling everything to the Christian community, he said.

Area Christians, however, said they remained fearful of new outbreaks of violence.

Report from Compass Direct News