PAKISTAN: TWO CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED OF ‘BLASPHEMY’


After nearly two and half years in jail, elderly men’s 10-year sentences overturned.

ISTANBUL, April 21 (Compass Direct News) – After more than two years in a Pakistani jail, two elderly Christian men convicted of “blasphemy” against the Quran were acquitted on Thursday (April 16) when a high court in Lahore overturned their 10-year sentence.

James Masih, 67, and Buta Masih, 72, were accused of burning pages from the Quran in October 2006 and were also tried under an anti-terrorism law because their actions were deemed to have created fear and panic. In a case that drew crowds of Islamic fanatics, they were convicted on Nov. 25, 2006 of blaspheming Islam’s sacred book.

The pair has claimed from the start that the blasphemy charges were fabricated due to a dispute over a plot of land that a Muslim neighbor wanted James Masih to sell.

“It happens many times, it is always a false story due to some other enmity,” said Father Yaqub Yousaf, the men’s parish priest. “Pastors and priests, we tell them that it is better not to speak on religion with the Muslims, not to say anything that can hurt them, so normally they don’t do that.”

After rumors erupted that the two men had burned pages of the Quran on Oct. 8, 2006, some 500 Muslims attempted to kill them. Police arrested the two Christians and held off the crowds, which stayed outside the police station through the night.

The Christian men launched an appeal soon after their conviction and have since remained in prison.

“I appeared in court 27 times during the appeal,” said Khalil Tahir Sindhu, their lawyer. “Most of the time the judges postponed the case, saying, ‘We will hear the case next time.’”

Sindhu told Compass that religious bias and public pressure led to the judge’s original decision to sentence the men and could have had much to do with the delays in hearing the appeal.

“At the last hearing [Dec. 15, 2008], the judge reserved judgment, which according to law has to be given within three months,” he said. “But it was over three months, so I went to court and told him, ‘These are old men and they are sick, so please announce the judgment.’”

James Masih was hospitalized three times during his internment, receiving treatment for a chest infection.

“Jail is totally different [in Pakistan], you hardly have proper food, and no facilities,” said Fr. Yousaf. Sources said both men were traumatized by their ordeal, an effect also felt keenly by their families, who were rarely able to visit.

 

Permanent Stigma

Articles 295-B and 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code respectively prescribe life imprisonment for desecrating the Quran and death for insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Although the law has not been implemented to the full extent of capital punishment or life in prison since its introduction in 1986, there have been more than 20 deaths recorded in blasphemy-related violence.

Even after their acquittal and release, Sindhu said, the men will not be able to immediately return home.

“It is dangerous now, we will not send them to their home,” said Sindhu. “We will keep them away for one to two months until the situation changes. Anyone can kill them.”

Christians previously accused of blasphemy continued to experience prejudice and sometimes violence even after being cleared of the charges.

“It is difficult for the blasphemy accused to find work,” commented Wasim Muntizar from the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement. “Churches are afraid to help them, because fanatics won’t hesitate to kill the ‘blasphemer’ and attack the church.”

Although the families of James and Buta Masih remain excited at the prospect of the pair’s upcoming return home, Fr. Yousaf has urged them to keep their celebrations muted.

“They are excited, yes, but I told them not to express so strongly their joy about it,” he said. “I requested them to keep it secret, because it may not be safe – some of the Muslims may say the court has not taken the right decision. In the past people have been killed after being acquitted.”

Report from Compass Direct News

INDIA: NEWS BRIEFS


Recent Incidents of Persecution

Rajasthan, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Hindu extremists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP or World Hindu Council) on March 21 attacked Bible students and staff members of the Believers Church and demanded 10,000 rupees (US$193) from them in Udaipur. A church source said the Christians were distributing gospel tracts in a Jeep when the extremists stopped them and dragged the driver out. Commandeering the vehicle, the Hindu extremists drove toward a remote area and beat the Christians, tearing up their gospel tracts. The church representative told Compass some Christians sustained minor injuries. The Christians later reached an agreement with the extremists without bowing to their demands to cease evangelistic activity.

 

Kerala – About 10 Hindu hardliners from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on March 15 attacked an evangelist in Malapuram. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that the extremists pulled away Tribal Mission evangelist O.J. Andrews as he was leading a worship service, dragged him about 30 kilometers (19 miles) in the street and beat him. The extremists had earlier accused the pastor of forceful conversion in a poster they had pasted on a wall, a charge he denied. Andrews filed a police complaint in Nilampur police station, but Sub-Inspector Ommer, who goes by one name, told Compass that the evangelist agreed to withdraw the charge after the extremists agreed to live peaceably with Christians. Police gave the hard-line BJP members a stern warning not to disturb the Christians again.

 

Punjab – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh on March 15 accused a pastor of trying to convert people to Christianity by offering them money and seriously injured another Christian in Ludhiana. A source told Compass that at about 4 p.m. on the previous day, a pastor identified only as Tiwari and other Christians were distributing gospel tracts when a group of Hindu extremists attacked them. They beat six Christians in all, including women, all of whom sustained minor injuries. The next day, about 200 area extremists massed and removed a cross, pictures and gospel literature and burned them in a fire as they danced around it. They beat Christians present, seriously injuring Ayub Masih. Police arrived, and each party filed complaints against the other. Superintendent of Police Harbinder Singh told Compass that about 20 police officers are posted in the area and that officials were trying to arrange a peace agreement between the two parties.

 

Himachal Pradesh – Gospel for Asia (GFA) reported that Hindu extremists beat two Christian missionaries on March 14 in an undisclosed village in Himachal Pradesh. A mob of about 30 Hindu hardliners beat and kicked GFA missionaries Murari Jay and Atul Rajesh, leaving Jay with severe injuries to his back and Rajesh with acute head trauma. GFA representative Sushant Sona told Compass that, besides beating the Christians, the intolerant Hindus stormed into their home and burned their belongings. At about 6:30 p.m. the extremists took the Christians to the police station, and officers took them into custody allegedly as a security measure. They were released at about 11:30 p.m. The assailants reached an agreement by which they agreed not to attack the Christians again if the Christians agreed to drop charges.

 

Madhya Pradesh – Hindu extremists on March 12 splashed gas on the house of a pastor in Nainpur, Mandala and set it aflame. A source said the extremists burned the house of pastor James Masih of St. Mark Church at midnight, damaging doors, windows, curtains, files and furniture. Pastor Masih told Compass that local people opposed his congregation because of their Christian activities. The pastor filed a police complaint at Nainpur police station, but no arrests had been made at press time.

Report from Compass Direct News