Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’

District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Another Copt Killed as Alleged Shooters Plead Not Guilty in Egypt

Coptic carpenter killed outside building that Muslims feared would be used as church.

ISTANBUL, February 16 (CDN) — Three men accused of killing six Coptic worshipers and a security guard pleaded not guilty on Saturday (Feb. 13) as the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another victim of apparent anti-Christian violence.

The three men allegedly sprayed a crowd with gunfire after a Christmas service in Nag Hammadi on Jan. 6. In addition to the seven that were killed, nine others were wounded. The killings were the worst act of anti-Coptic violence since January 2000, when 20 Copts were killed in sectarian fighting in Al-Kosheh.

Defendants Mohammed al-Kammuni, Qorshi Abul Haggag and Hendawi Sayyed appeared Saturday in an emergency security court in Qena, a city 39 miles (63 kilometers) north of Luxor.

In front of the packed courtroom, the three men said little at the hearing other than to enter their plea before Judge Mohammed Adul Magd, according to one attorney present at the hearing. The men are charged with premeditated murder, public endangerment and damaging property.

Numerous Muslim attorneys volunteered to defend them for free as seven attorneys representing the interests of the victims looked on. The next hearing is set for March 20.

Even as the men entered their pleas, the Coptic community mourned the loss of yet another Christian, this one shot dead by police. On the evening of Feb. 9, Malak Saad, a 25-year-old Coptic carpenter living in Teta in Menoufia Province, was walking outside a meeting hall that police had seized from Christians when he was shot through his chest at close range. He died instantly.

Scant details are known about the shooting. Police surrounded the entire village and closed it to all reporters. In a statement, officials at the Interior Ministry said the Saad was killed by mistake when a bullet discharged while a police guard was cleaning his weapon. The Interior Ministry said the shooter has been detained and will be tried in a military court. Such courts are traditionally closed to the public.

One of Saad’s cousins, who requested anonymity, disputed the Interior Ministry’s version of the incident. He said that the guard had used the bathroom inside the meeting hall and had come outside of the building when he exchanged a few words with Saad and shot him at close range. The bullet went completely through Saad’s chest.

The building in question had been Coptic-owned for 16 years, but two days prior to the shooting, police seized it after a group of Muslims started a rumor that the owners planned to convert the hall into a church building.

Disputes over worship venues are common in Egypt. Copts and other Christians are extremely restricted in opening or even maintaining houses of worship because of complex government statutes. Anti-Christian elements within Egyptian society often use the statutes to harass Christians, Christian leaders said.

Christians Arrested

Following the Jan. 6 shootings, in a move that Christian leaders said was designed to silence the Coptic community’s protests, police began going door to door and arresting Coptic men in their late teens and 20s. Reports vary widely on the numbers of how many men were arrested, but 15 arrests have been confirmed.

Early in the morning of Jan. 8, officers from State Security Intelligence appeared at the home of Tanios Samuel looking for a different house. When officers realized they were at the wrong home, they arrested his brothers, Fady Milad Samuel, 21, and Wael Milad Samuel, 24.

“We are Copts. It is their country, they will do whatever they want,” Tanios Samuel said about the arrests.

He said the government is using his brothers and the others arrested as pawns to silence dissent. He said he lives in fear for himself and his brothers.

“The families are very scared – scared of violence, getting threats all the time,” Samuel said. “All we want is peace.”

Last month’s attack brought widespread outrage across the Coptic community and from human rights groups around the world.

Since his rise to power in 1981, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has avoided classifying any anti-Coptic attack as part of a larger sectarian struggle within the country. His critics however, have long said his policies or lack thereof contribute greatly to the anti-Christian climate within the country.

Although freedom of religion is guaranteed in Egypt’s constitution, Islam is the official state religion. In public schools, the Quran is used to teach Arabic.

On Jan. 21, Mubarak made an uncharacteristically strong statement about the shootings to MENA, the government-run news agency.

“The criminal act in Nag Hammadi has bled the hearts of Egyptians,” he said. “I hasten to affirm that the reasonable people of this nation, and its religious leaders and thinkers … bear the greater responsibility to contain discord and ignorance and blind fanaticism and to confront the despicable sectarian strife that threatens the unity of our society.”

Despite Mubaraks’s comments, the government has characterized the attack as either a random criminal act or as one done in reaction to a November incident in which a 21-year-old Christian man allegedly raped a 12-year-old Muslim girl.

In an interview with BBC Arabic, Dr. Fathi Sourour, head of the Egyptian Parliament, said, “The Nag Hammadi shooting of Christians on Christmas Eve was a single criminal act, with no sectarian dimensions.” He added that the crime was “prompted by the ‘death’ of a Muslim girl as a result of being raped by a Copt.”

Later, commenting on a report about the incident, he described the shootings as “a clash between two brothers living in one home.”

Copts, however, have a starkly different impression of the shooting.

Georgette Qillini, a Coptic member of the Egyptian Parliament, described the attack as “a purely sectarian crime and by no means an individual criminal attack,” the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram reported.

Ibtessam Habib, another Coptic Parliament member, agreed that “sectarian rather than personal motives lie behind the Nag Hammadi attack.”

Report from Compass Direct News