PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


Religious reconciliation meetings produce first such acquittal as imams issue fatwa.

ISTANBUL, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Five Christians charged with “blasphemy” against Islam during April 2007 religious holidays were released on Monday (Jan. 19) after reconciliation meetings between Christian and Islamic leaders – the first verdict to have resulted from such efforts in Pakistan.

A Punjab court released Salamat Masih, 42, his 16-year-old son Rashid, and their relatives Ishfaq, Saba and Dao Masih after a judge acquitted them. Their acquittal and release came through out-of-court meetings between Muslim leaders and a Christian Non-Governmental Organization.

“This is a wonderful sign that has made history,” said Shahzad Kamran, a case worker for Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan (SLMP), which negotiated with the Muslim leaders. “This case can set a precedent for future blasphemy cases against Christians.”

The reconciliation meetings between SLMP and local and national imams began last November. Rather than attempt to settle the matter in court, the legal advocacy group sought out Muslim leaders directly to persuade them that the accused were innocent; the Islamic clerics then compelled area Muslims to drop their charges.

The meetings took place between four Islamic clergymen, National Assembly Representative Mushtaq Ahmed and Sohail Johnson of the SLMP. Ahmed was unavailable for comment in spite of repeated attempts to contact him.

Johnson of SLMP took precautionary measures to keep from being exposed to violence, meeting with the imams in neutral locations away from mosques and Muslim parts of the city. The SLMP team managed to convince the Islamic clerics to release the Christians by persuading them that the alleged blasphemy grew from a misunderstanding.

“There is permission granted in Islamic law that if someone unintentionally commits an offense, it can be reconciled,” Johnson said. “[The cleric] said he would do it because he did not want to bring harm and injustice to the community.”

The Islamic clergymen agreed to issue a fatwa (religious edict) declaring the accused men innocent of blasphemy. The Muslim witnesses in the case withdrew their testimony on Jan. 13, and District Judge Sheik Salahudin acquitted the five men in a Toba Tek Singh court.

The legal advocates involved in the case said they would employ reconciliation in future cases of false blasphemy charges. They said that battling such cases in court can still free innocent people, but it does not help to solve sectarian strife that leads to violence and false charges.

But with reconciliation meetings, “the word of God has affected the hearts of the Muslims and changed their behavior,” Johnson said. “With our good behavior we can change the people.”

The SLMP’s Kamran said the imams declared the defendants innocent because they knew the men did not intentionally insult the Islamic religion. The situation likely escalated because it took place during an Islamic holiday, with the April 2007 Muslim celebration of Eid-e-Millad-ul-Nabi (Muhammad’s birthday) turning into mob violence after the spread of false rumors against Christians. Local Christian Ratan Masih was severely injured. Other Christians fled for fear of their lives, according to SLMP.

Approximately 2,000 Muslims attacked Christian Colony, a Christian neighborhood, stoning houses and torturing Christians, according to an SLMP report. Initially the mob violence began over a quarrel between Rashid Masih’s younger brother Daniel, 12, and a Muslim child named Sunny. In the course of the argument, a sticker fell off Sunny’s shirt that bore the words Yah Rasool Allah, a reference to Muhammad as God’s messenger.

A local resident, Mohammed Farsal, saw the sticker on the ground and accused the Christian children of blasphemy. Violence soon broke out, and police eventually arrested all five men on charges of insulting Islam.

Blasphemy charges against non-Muslims are not uncommon in Pakistan and are typically applied in cases of sectarian violence. Islamic leaders are often under community pressure to blame Christians in these situations.

Human rights lawyers hope this case sets a precedent for future blasphemy cases, with spurious charges of insulting Islam or its prophet becoming more difficult to press.

Other legal cases of blasphemy continue in Pakistan, including the arrest of Munir Masih and his wife Ruqiya Bibi for insulting Islam. They were granted bail yesterday in Kasur.

At the hearing, 20 local Muslims pressured the judge not to grant them bail, according to a report from the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement.

On Wednesday (Jan. 21), Hector Aleem from Islamabad was falsely accused of blasphemy, most likely as a backlash to his role as a human rights activist, the report said.

Christian lawmakers in the Muslim-majority country of 170 million hope to curb these legal abuses by abolishing Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  

Report from Compass Direct News

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ALGERIA: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN BLASPHEMY CASE


Verdict suggests Algerian government could be softening crackdown on Christians.

ISTANBUL, October 29 (Compass Direct News) – A court in northwestern Algeria today acquitted three Christians charged with blaspheming Islam and threatening a member of their congregation who re-converted to Islam.

The acquittal was announced in a court at Ain El-Turck, 15 kilometers (nine miles) west of the coastal city of Oran. The defendants believe the judge’s decision to acquit was due to the spurious evidence used against them.

The acquittal also comes as part of a larger trend of the Algerian government bowing to negative international media attention and government condemnations of such cases, they said.

Defendant Youssef Ourahmane said that as a result, a recent government crackdown against evangelical Christians has eased off in recent months.

“We had noticed the last four or five months the government is trying to back down a little bit,” Ourahmane said. “I think the pressure on them has been strong, such as condemnations from the U.S. and foreign ministries from France, Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Spain. This pressure from outside has embarrassed the Algerian government very much.”

Algerian courts have handed several suspended sentences to local evangelicals in the last year under a recent presidential decree that prohibits proselytizing Muslims. No Christian, however, has served prison time on religious charges.

Ourahmane, Rachid Muhammad Essaghir, and a third man were charged in February with “blaspheming the name of the Prophet [Muhammad] and Islam” and threatening the life of a man who claimed to have converted to Christianity but who “returned” to Islam when his fundamentalist ties were exposed.

The first hearing of the three men took place on Oct. 21 in Ain El-Turck. A lawyer appointed by the Ministry of Religion also joined the hearing and surprised the defendants by supporting their plight.

The lawyer affirmed the rights of religious minorities such as Christians in Algeria. The Christians present said she would like the case to be closed.

A prosecutor in the case had sought three years of prison for the three men and a fine of 50,000 dinars (653 euros) for each.

Taking the stand last week, the three men were asked whether they had blasphemed Muhammad and threatened Shamouma Al-Aid, the convert and plaintiff. Al-Aid had professed Christianity from July 2004 through July 2006, when he attended a church near Oran. It was there that he met the Christians, against whom he later filed the blasphemy complaint.

Essaghir, an evangelist and church elder for a small community of Muslim converts to Christianity in Tiaret, has been one of the most targeted Christians in Algeria.

In the last year he has received three sentences, one for blasphemy and two for evangelism. Police stopped Essaghir and another man in June 2007 while transporting Christian literature. As a result they were convicted in absentia in November 2007 and given a two-year sentence and 5,000-euro fines. The Protestants requested a retrial, and the charges were dropped at a hearing in June.

Asked if he could explain why he and other Christians were under fire by Islamists, he told Compass that Muslims felt menaced by the existence of Christianity and its rise in Algeria.

“We are attacked because Muslims feel threatened by us,” said Essaghir. “There are many people who are coming to Christ.”

When the three accused Christians met Al-Aid, he claimed that his family was persecuting him, so they took him in to their church community. But in 2006 the Christians learned that Al-Aid in fact had links with Islamic fundamentalists.

After excommunicating Al-Aid, in October 2007 the three Christians were summoned by police when Al-Aid registered his complaint that they had insulted Muhammad and Islam and threatened his life.

“But the accusations against us are unfounded,” Essaghir told Compass last week by phone. “There is no proof, but we are being condemned because there is no justice.”

Ourahmane said that Al-Aid had shown the police text messages to support his claims, but that police said the number had not been registered with telecommunications services.

With their fresh acquittal, the three Christians could open a case against Al-Aid for bringing a case against them based on spurious evidence, according to Algerian law.

Instead, they want to offer their forgiveness, Ourahmane said.

“We have decided to forgive him and will communicate we are all ready to help him if he needs any help,” he said. “We are in touch with him through one of our team members, and if he is thirsty or hungry we are more than happy to help.”

 

Pressure on Algeria’s Church

The three acquitted men are just a few of the Algerian Christians who have come under legal heat in a wave of trials this year against the country’s tiny evangelical church.

Habiba Kouider, facing a three-year sentence after police stopped her while she was carrying several Christian books, has been kicked out of her family’s home. Kouider’s brothers learned about her conversion to Christianity after her case sparked national and international media attention.

In most cases the Christians have been charged under a presidential decree from February 2006 that restricts religious worship to government-approved buildings. The decree, known as Ordinance 06-03, also outlaws any attempt to convert Muslims to another faith.

The international community has been vocal about the Algerian government’s stance toward Christians. On June 6, some 30 U.S. congressmen sent a letter to Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

They addressed human rights violations resulting from Ordinance 06-03, which has resulted in the closures of churches and criminal charges against Christians.

Algeria’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but loose terminology in its penal code – such as Article 144, which calls for up to five years of prison for “anyone who offends the Prophet and denigrates the tenets of Islam” – has allowed judges to give Islamic practice the force of law.

On Sept. 29 six men in Biskra, 420 kilometers (260 miles) south of Algiers, were sentenced to four years of prison for eating in public before sunset during the month of Ramadan, according to Algerian national daily Liberte. Muslims are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset during this 30-day period.

An Oct. 6 editorial in Algerian daily El Watan lamented the decision as proof that religious rights were eroding in Algeria.

“The divine law itself does not provide for severe penalties, and even the Taliban regime is not as strict,” said editorial writer Reda Bekkat. “One can imagine a judge tomorrow questioning people [who were] walking on the streets at the hour of prayer because they are not at the mosque.”  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN MINORITIES WILL CONTINUE FIGHTING FOR REPEAL OF BLASPHEMY LAWS


Reiterating his pledge to continue mounting efforts for a repeal of Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws, Shahbaz Bhatti, the Chairman of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) has assured the family of a blasphemy-accused that the APMA would not rest until release of Dr. Robin, a Pakistani Christian homeopathic doctor who was arrested in May 2008 after he was accused of blasphemy.

Dr. Robin was accused of passing derogatory remarks against the beard of Prophet Muhammad.

He is currently detained in Gujranawala jail. Dr. Robin’s family was forced to go into hiding as the family members of the accused cannot stay at their home after the stigma of blasphemy has been slapped on any of their family members.

The family of Dr. Robin and some 20 Christian residents of district Hafizabad had come to see the APMA Chief; Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, after Dr. Robin was accused of blasphemy. They apprised him of the insecurity they had become exposed to after Robin was implicated in a blasphemy case.

The APMA has been extending financial support to the family as well as free legal aid to Dr. Robin since the occurrence of alleged blasphemy by Dr. Robin.

The family of the accused including Veenus, 50, Tariq 42, Waseem Bhatti, 32 and Francis Masih, a relative of Dr. Robin came to the APMA office in Islamabad on October 3, 2008.

Describing the fear and uncertainty that gripped the family members following leveling of blasphemy charges on Dr. Robin, Waseem told ANS that they felt as if a roof had been snatched from them.

“We felt secure after we met the APMA Chief Shahbaz Bhatti,” he said.

“We wanted our voice to be raised. We were desperately looking for someone to steer us out of the problem we were confronting. We were praying for some help. We prayed to God and we knew our prayers were heard when we met Shahbaz Bhatti”, said Waseem.

The young Christian man went on to say that fears of sorts were assailing the family’s mind after detention of Dr. Robin. They (fears) left us disturbed and helpless all the more, he said.

After incarceration of Dr. Robin, he said the family had lost the breadwinner and they were not in a position of hiring a lawyer.

“You need a lawyer to defend you even in a simple dispute. We knew we had to hire a competent defense counsel for Dr. Robin. It was again Mr. Shahbaz who extended free legal aid for Dr. Robin”, said Waseem as tears ran down his cheeks.

Waseem, who works as an animator in a local Non Governmental Organization (NGO) feared that it had become virtually impossible for Dr. Robin to run his clinic at the same locality.

He also ruled out possibility of any of his family members staying at the same place after leveling of blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin.

“His (Dr. Robin’s) family members are living in hiding. They have been able to find a roof above their heads with the help the APMA Chief extended to the family but you still feel alienated. You take time to settle down at a new place. You continue to live a tension-ridden life”, he said.

“The children of Dr. Robin have been robbed of fatherly love. Michael Rose, the youngest of Dr. Robin’s children used to stay in a hostel. He does not feel comfortable staying at the hostel now”, said Waseem.

In response to a question he said that during this period of tribulation Dr. Robin had emerged as a strong Christian. He said his (Dr. Robin’s) belief in Christ had only become stronger.

Tariq, a relative of Dr. Robin told ANS that Dr. Robin wished to be released as soon as possible.

He said the incident had come as a big jolt to the children of Dr. Robin.

He said they had not been able to concentrate on their studies fully after Robin was arrested by the police.

Francis, brother-in-law of Dr. Robin called for repeal of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

Citing his talks with a couple of Muslim friends, he said that they were of the view that the law should be repealed.

“My Muslim friends admitted that a thorough investigation should be made before lodging of a blasphemy-related Police First Information Report (FIR)”, said Tariq.

Tariq disclosed that he had been able to record a conversation between the complainant and some family members of Dr. Robin in which the complainant tried to do a “deal” with the family of the accused.

According to Tariq, the complainant said that he would withdraw charges against Dr. Robin if his family agreed to pay him money.

He claimed he recorded the conversation on September 19, a day ahead of the hearing of Dr. Robin’s case in a lower court.

Echoing a grave concern of Pakistani Christians, who like their fellow Muslim Pakistanis want their concerns to be highlighted on national and print media, Tariq said that Dr. Robin’s case only drew marginal coverage of the incident.

Lashing out at the police he alleged that the police failed to provide adequate security to Dr. Robin’s family.

“If the Police had provided security to Dr. Robin’s family and his vulnerable relatives then they might have decided to continue staying in Hafizabad but in the absence of any such security the family was forced to go into hiding”, he said.

In an apparent bid to support his disbelief in the police, he said that police did not take initiative for rescuing Dr. Robin’s family “rather some local Christians entered Dr. Robin’s home at about 3 am and rescued the family members who had become prone to attack by the angry Muslim residents of Hafizabad”.

“Do you want us to jump into fire”, he quoted a police official as saying, who Tariq and other Christian residents of the area wanted to rescue Dr. Robin’s family members.

Post-arrest situation

Tariq said when he and some other members of Dr. Robin’s family went to Dr. Robin’s place to collect some clothes, books and some other daily use items they saw a “shocking scene”.

“Not even a single thing was at its place. There were visible signs of human presence at Dr. Robin’s house. It was not hard to conclude that some people have been living at Dr. Robin’s house. We saw crumbs of bread, chicken bones, and unwashed dishes.

Dr. Robin’s house had been ransacked”, said Tariq, who looked scared while sketching the ransacked home of Dr. Robin.

He said that the lower court rejected a post-arrest bail petition, prompting the APMA to file a petition in Lahore High Court.

Asked who could have inhabited Dr. Robin’s house after his arrest and exiting of his family members, Tariq said that the fundamentalist Muslims of the area could have maintained their presence at Dr. Robin’s house. Nobody could have dared entering Dr. Robin’s home if the police had been vigilant, he said.

Tariq disclosed that a small but angry Muslim crowd took out a rally in a bid to pressurize the court.

He said that participants of the rally were holding placards, which were inscribed with slogans, “Give death to Dr. Robin.”

He disclosed that the witnesses at a court hearing had submitted their written version on legal papers that Dr. Robin did not commit blasphemy.

He said he learned that Dr. Robin’s lawyer also gave precedents of post-arrest bails granted to blasphemy accused in the past “but even then the judge did not grant post-arrest bail to Dr. Robin”.

Talking to the APMA Chief, Mr. Shahbaz Bhatti, Veenus said that recording of the alleged conversation between the complainant and some family members further angered the local Muslims.

Thanking Mr. Shahbaz, she said she was optimistic that Dr. Robin would soon be home due to the APMA’s efforts.

She said: “I urge the Christians across the world to pray for release of my husband from prison. I cannot give fatherly love to my children. We want him back as soon as possible”, she said while talking to the APMA Chief”.

The APMA Chief told ANS that he was going to urge authorities to do an in-camera trial of Dr. Robin for security purposes. An application in this regard would be moved soon, he said.

He assured the family of the accused that Dr. Robin would soon be with them.

“The APMA is concerned. It (APMA) has been since leveling of the blasphemy accusations on Dr. Robin. We stand by you at this critical juncture in Robin’s and your life,” Shahbaz told the family of Dr. Robin who had come to see him at his office in Islamabad.

“It is the case of entire Christian community. When children of Dr. Robin talk to me by phone, I could feel the agony in their voices. I understand what they are living through. The APMA will do all it can to ensure expedient release of Dr. Robin”, said Shahbaz.

“We understand that the Pakistan blasphemy laws are being misused to settle personal scores. Religious enmity, prejudice and intolerance have been found behind filing of blasphemy cases in the past”, he maintained.

“God will move in His own mysterious way. Dr. Robin will be with you soon”, the APMA Chief told Dr. Robin’s spouse, Veenus.

Shahbaz reiterated his pledge that the APMA would continue to extend free legal aid to the blasphemy accused.

He said the APMA would continue to struggle until the blasphemy laws are repealed.

A person is reduced to the status of a refugee in his country after blasphemy allegations are leveled against him, said Shahbaz implying to the threats the accused and his family receive after slapping of blasphemy charges.

Responding a question, he said the APMA had been providing free legal aid and shelter to the blasphemy-accused since the abuse of the law became rampant in Pakistan.

The APMA, he said, wants to see the controversial laws abolished. He disclosed that he wanted to table a bill in parliament in a bid to either get the laws repealed or see them significantly amended.

He appealed to the Christians across the world to pray for the APMA and Pakistani Christians.

“I thank you for your previous prayers and support. We need your prayers to be able to continue fighting for the rights of the marginalized and the down-trodden Pakistani Christians and other minorities”, he said.

Dubbing Pakistan blasphemy laws as a death warrant in the hands of extremists, Shahbaz called for the repeal of the law, which he said had done more harm than good since their introduction in 1986.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

CHINA INFRINGES RELIGIOUS LIBERTY


For anyone reading this Blog it would come as no surprise to learn that a U.S. State Department report on religious freedom (2008 Report on International Religious Freedom) has exposed China as a nation that infringes on religious liberties. The Chinese government however has rejected the accusation (no surprises there).

“China is strongly dissatisfied and resolutely opposed to the U.S. accusation in its religious freedom report,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said in a statement, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.

According to the Chinese government Christians are allowed to worship in government-backed denominations and according to its rules. Evangelism, missionary work and Christian education are all banned or discouraged. House Churches within China are often the target of raids and arrests.

It would seem to me that Jiang Yu and the Chinese government have no idea as to what religious freedom actually is!

The U.S. State Department report places China, Myanmar and North Korea on top of a list of countries with poor religious freedom records.