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


Displaced Christians survive bomb blasts as violence continues in Kandhamal district.

NEW DELHI, September 30 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian couple was found murdered, a woman killed, numerous houses and churches burned and low-intensity bombs exploded at relief camps in the past week in Orissa state’s Kandhamal district, where Hindu extremist violence began more than a month ago.

On Sunday (Sept. 28), police found the body of Priyatamma Digal, an auxiliary nurse and midwife, in a river. On Monday, the body of her husband, Meghanath, was recovered. According to The Times of India newspaper, the Christian couple was killed last Thursday (Sept. 25).

This morning attacks by unidentified armed groups in the villages of Rudangia, Telingia and Gadaguda in Kandhamal resulted in more than 100 houses burned and the death of Ramani Nayak of Rudangia village, reported The Hindu. Her religious affiliation was not known at press time.

Eight people were seriously injured in the attacks, according to reports, and about 20 people received minor injuries.

Bomb blasts yesterday rocked three Kandhamal relief camps in the Nuagaon area, Mahasinghi village and Baliguda town, reported the Press Trust of India (PTI).

No casualties were reported, but the explosions left residents of the relief camps fearing for their lives.

“Since they have been successful in exploding bombs near the heavily guarded relief camp, there is no guarantee that the explosions will not take place in other camps,” one refugee told PTI.


Axe Attack

The Times of India also reported that five houses were torched in Phirigia block in Kandhamal (Gochhapada police jurisdiction) on Sunday night.

Last Thursday (Sept. 25), some 700 people armed with axes, swords, and iron bars attacked a Missionaries of Charity house in Sukananda village in Kandhamal, reported Asia News agency.

“There was no one at home, because when the violence erupted against the Christians, we took our few belongings and moved to our house in Bhubaneswar,” Sister M. Suma told the agency. “We brought with us the tabernacle, the altar, and especially the Dalit and tribal girls whom we were sheltering.”

Late on Wednesday (Sept. 24), mobs burned about 30 houses and two prayer houses in Simanjodi village and 50 houses in Batingia village, reported The Indian Express newspaper.

In Rakingia village, an Orissa Disaster Rapid Action Force (ODRAF) team that had gone to clear roadblocks was attacked, forcing the accompanying police to open fire, added the newspaper.

“Two tribal people have reportedly been killed,” the daily reported. “Sources said tribals with bows and arrows launched an attack on the ODRAF.”

According to the All India Christian Council (AICC), at least 57 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and over 4,300 houses, 150 churches and 13 educational institutions destroyed since the Aug. 24 outbreak of violence in Orissa. Two Christian women were also gang-raped.

The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.

The attacks began following the killing of a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples on Aug. 23 in Kandhamal district. Maoists have claimed responsibility for the assassination, but the VHP has persisted in blaming local Christians.

According to media reports, Christians in Orissa retaliated in at least one incident. A man was killed in Raikia Block after “Dalit Christians of Gundhari village hurled bombs at the tribal-dominated village of Sirsapanga in the afternoon [of Sept. 24),” The Indian Express reported. “Sources said the deceased, Raghav Digal, a Dalit Hindu, was a government employee.”


‘Withdraw Federal Forces’

The leader of an influential tribal group believed to be instigating violence in Kandhamal demanded withdrawal of federal security personnel from the district as a “precondition” to stopping the attacks.

Yesterday Lambodar Kanhar, secretary of the Kandhamal Zilla Kui Samaj (Kui people group) Coordination Committee, was quoted by The Indian Express as saying that he was ready to give assurance that tribal people would not resort to violence if the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel were taken out of the rural pockets of the district.

Kanhar accused the CRPF of having let loose “a reign of terror” on “innocent” tribal villagers.

The Global Council of Indian Christians’ Dr. Sajan K. George said Kanhar’s demand was an attempt to “complete ‘ethnic-cleansing’ of Christians.” A representative of the Christian Legal Association said Hindu extremist assailants were upset that federal forces were trying to prevent them from attacking Christians and their property.

At the same time, European Union (EU) representatives yesterday spoke to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the India-EU summit in France about the government’s failure to prevent a “massacre” of Christians in Orissa and Karnataka states.

According to the AICC, in the southern state of Karnataka at least 19 churches and 20 Christians have been attacked. At least four churches and four Christian schools had been vandalized in the north-central state of Madhya Pradesh, and four churches attacked in the southern state of Kerala. Two churches had also been damaged in the national capital, Delhi.

Singh yesterday made assurances that attacks on Christians would be stopped.

Christians from various denominations, along with people from other faiths, are holding a weeklong sit-in day and night at Jantar Mantar observatory in New Delhi that began on Friday (Sept. 26) to protest the lack of security. The demonstration demanding protection for minority targets in Orissa and other states will conclude with a motorbike rally on Thursday (Oct 2).

Christian leaders such as Dr. John Dayal, the Rev. Dr. Richard Howell, A.C. Michael and Jenis Francis are participating in the protest.

This report from Compass Direct News