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

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PAKISTAN: TWO FEMALE NURSING STUDENTS ACCUSED OF BLASPHEMY


Two female Christian students of Fatima Memorial Hospital’s nursing school in the Pakistani city of Lahore, have been accused of desecrating verses of the Quran, the Muslim holy book, days after their Muslim roommates desecrated a picture of Jesus Christ which they had hung in a shared hostel room, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.

ANS has learnt that some days back the Muslim nursing students took a strong exception to the hanging of Jesus’ picture on the wall.

Islamic tradition explicitly prohibits images of Allah, Muhammad and all the major figures of the Christian and Jewish traditions.

Muslim students desecrated the picture by tearing it up and hurling it down after the Christian students refused to remove it voluntarily.

The administration of the Nursing School allegedly took no action against the Muslim students, who committed the alleged profanity.

Christian-Muslim tension among students of the nursing school escalated on Feb. 13 when the Muslim students, who still harbored acrimony against their Christian roommates, accused them of desecrating Quranic verses.

The National Director of Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), Mr. Joseph Francis, and Chief Coordinator of the Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan, Mr. Sohail Johnson, visited scene of the incident after a Christian woman Fouzia informed Sohail by phone about the incident on Saturday morning (Feb. 14).

Talking to ANS by phone, Mr. Sohail Johnson, pointed out a dichotomy between the versions of the Muslim Medical Superintendent, Ayesha Nouman, and the Christian hostel warden, Martha.

In an apparent bid to cover up the matter, Ayesha told the visiting activists that things had returned to normal and the Christian girls who were accused of blasphemy were at the hostel.

Martha, the Christian hostel warden, however, disputed her superior’s version, claiming that the Christian girls accused of blasphemy were not currently staying at the hostel, Sohail told ANS.

“She expressed ignorance about the whereabouts of the nursing students and would not speak any further on the subject for fear of getting into possible trouble herself,” said Sohail Johnson, whose ministry primarily works for Christian prisoners.

ANS further learnt that an “anti-blasphemy” demonstration was staged in front of Iqbal Avenue Hostel near Shaukat Khanum Cancer Memorial Hospital in Lahore on Feb. 13. The demonstrators included Muslim nursing students and people, who were not students of the Nursing School. The angry protesters demanded stringent legal action against the Christian nursing students, one of whom has been identified as Sitar.

Giving out statistics, Sohail said the Fatima Memorial Hospital Nursing School enrolled some 160 nursing students for year 2009.

“I regret that the two Christian students have to face blasphemy accusation. Of course, they managed to get enrolment at the nursing school after a cut-throat competition with Muslim students,” said Sohail Johnson. “The nursing school, Sohail said received some 1400 applications for 2009 session.”

In May 2007, four female Christian Nursing students of Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) in the capital of Pakistan, Islamabad, were accused of blasphemy. The blasphemy charges were dropped as the committee that was constituted to probe into the blasphemy allegations found the Christian girls innocent.

Sohail Johnson expressed concern over recent abuse of the law by educated people.

He stated, “One could see why ignorant or illiterate people could abuse the law but the misuse of the law by the educated people is a cause of serious concern and has made non-Muslims more vulnerable to the rampant abuse of the law.”

He hailed Christian nurses’ services in the medical sector.

“By implicating Christian nurses in blasphemy cases, it appears some elements want to discourage Christian women from entering medical sector,” he feared. He underscored the need for drawing up a strategy to deal with blasphemy complaints.

Asked how one could expect the police to exercise their duties in an impartial manner while handling blasphemy-accused or blasphemy-related complaints, the human rights activist suggested that workshops should be offered to them (Police) with a view to reform their attitude towards people accused of blasphemy.

“The police often play in the hands of the influential people that also include politicians,” alleged Sohail.

Asked how the international community could influence the Pakistan government to scrap laws perceived as discriminatory by minorities, Sohail Johnson said it could do a number of things. The concerned people, he said, could write letters to the ambassadors of Pakistan in their respective countries.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

PAKISTAN: ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASES SEND CHRISTIANS INTO HIDING


Doctor acquitted while two other believers remain in jail; mobs threaten their homes, families.

Istanbul, November 13 (Compass Direct News) – A Christian doctor in Pakistan jailed since May 5 on charges of “blasphemy” was acquitted last week, while another Christian and his adult daughter remained incarcerated after more than a month on charges of desecrating the Quran.

Dr. Robin Sardar of Pakistan’s Punjab province was released on Nov. 4 after his accuser said the claim that he had blasphemed Islam’s prophet Muhammad was the result of a “misunderstanding.”

“The complainant said in the court that he has, through a misunderstanding, done all these things,” said Ezra Shujaab of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), which represented Sardar.

After a thorough investigation, the court found the accusation to be baseless and freed Sardar, Shujaab said. Angry villagers and local Muslim clerics had threatened to kill Sardar if he was acquitted, and he has gone into hiding, as did his family after his incarceration six months ago. A mob bearing sticks and kerosene and chanting death threats had surrounded the family’s house at that time.

In May Dr. Sardar was taken to Punjab’s Gujranwala Central Jail after a Muslim vendor filed a blasphemy complaint with police, prompting the attacks on his house. Sardar and the vendor had reportedly clashed over whether the merchant could set up shop in front of the doctor’s clinic.

The vendor, Muhammad Rafique, had claimed that Sardar had insulted Islam’s prophet during a visit between the two men. In his written statement, Rafique had called for the death penalty for Sardar and threatened that local Muslims would riot if police did not arrest him.

Under article 295-C of the Pakistani Penal Code, blasphemy against Muhammad merits death.

 

Father-Daughter Jailing

As happened to Sardar, violent Muslim mobs also attacked the home of Gulsher Masih after his daughter was accused of desecrating the Quran on Oct. 9 in the village of Tehsil Chak Jhumra.

Both he and his daughter, 25-year-old Sandal Gulsher, have been detained in Faisalabad since Oct. 10, and the rest of the family has gone into hiding.

A mob numbering in the hundreds gathered at the house of Masih last month armed with sticks, stones and bottles of kerosene after accusations that he had encouraged his daughter to tear pages from the Quran were broadcast over loudspeakers from a mosque.

“A mob came and they stoned their house, and they put the kerosene oil on the whole house to put it on fire,” said Yousef Benjamin of the National Commission for Justice and Peace. “However, just before that the police came in.”

Initially the whole family was taken into protective custody by police from the nearby Faisalabad station.

Under pressure from the mob, police on Oct. 10 charged Masih’s daughter – and Masih himself, for defending her – with violating section 295-B of the Pakistani Penal Code, which prescribes life imprisonment for those convicted of desecrating the Quran.

“When on the 10th the police were ready to register the FIR, I was there and more than 100 Muslim people were forcing the police … [saying] ‘We want Gulsher and his daughter to be hanged,’” said Quaiser Felix, a journalist for Asia News.

Masih and his daughter remain in custody and await a court hearing. They will plead innocent and deny all charges, said Shujaab, adding, “They did nothing.”

The rest of the family is in hiding, unable to return home due to fears of reprisal.

“It is very common in Pakistan that when a Christian person is caught or booked under blasphemy laws, then even if the court releases him or her they have to migrate from the area,” said Benjamin. “It is dangerous; they cannot come back to the community openly.”

Both Sardar and Gulsher’s families now face the prospect of never returning to their home towns, said Shujaab of APMA.

“Sardar, though he was acquitted, he cannot live in the home where he was residing,” said Shujaab. “They have to live like refugees.”

Although false blasphemy charges are leveled at Muslims as well as Christians in Pakistan, religious differences are often a motivating factor for the accusations.

“Muslims become challenged by these people, those who are somewhat established Christians,” said Shujaab. “[Out of] jealousy they want to throw these people out of the villages. They have involved them so that they should not live there in that village.”  

Report from Compass Direct News