Pakistani Pastors Fear Retaliation after Police Withdraw Charge

Church leaders were accused of misusing loudspeakers on Christmas.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 11 (CDN) — Christian leaders in Punjab Province’s Nankana Sahib district said they were apprehensive after a police inspector’s warning on Friday (Jan. 7) that “they would be responsible for anything that went wrong in the villages” if they continued preaching over a public address system.

Eight pastors leading a delegation of more than 100 Christians from Martinpur and Youngsenabad villages had persuaded police to drop the charge of preaching over the church loudspeakers – a practice routinely allowed by Muslims in mosques. They complained of inspector Muhammad Rana Ishaq’s veiled threat to the police chief, but they fear Ishaq will file other false cases against them in retaliation for the withdrawal of the charge.  

The Christian delegation registered a strong protest with the Nankana police chief for restricting their worship. After two hours of talks, the police chief conceded that his staff had discriminated against the Christians and ordered withdrawal of the case. Police had filed a case against the eight pastors for “misusing loudspeakers” on Dec. 25, 2010. The pastors said police should have taken into account that it was Christmas Day, and that residents of the two villages were worshipping in their churches.

Pastor Mubarak Victor of Calvary Gospel Church in Martinpur village told Compass that he and seven other pastors – Chandan Lal, William Kayani, Shahzad Fakhardin, Amoon Samuel, Shamaoon Khokhar, Amir Sohail and Hanooq Daniel – had been named in the case. Victor said the charge was ridiculous, as they have been preaching and worshipping on public address systems for decades.

“Our villages are inhabited by Christians, and we have been worshipping freely for years,” Pastor Victor said. “A ban on using loudspeakers was imposed on Muslim clerics because they often indulge in fanning sectarianism. This action of the administration is nothing but religious bigotry.”

He added that filing a case against the pastors on Christmas Day was a step towards restricting the Christians’ right to worship. The two villages have a combined Christian population of around 10,000.

“Muslims from our neighboring villages are behind this move,” Pastor Victor said. “Over the last couple of years, Muslims, mostly youth and women, have started coming to us for prayers. Almost all the Muslims who have visited my church said they were impressed by our sermons and worship and asked me to pray for them. Some have even denounced their faith but are keeping it a secret from their families.”

He said the pastors were not forcing the Muslims to come to them.

“It is the sincerity in our prayers and the testimonies we share that bring a change of heart in them,” he said.

Pastors Chandan Lal and Amir Sohail voiced similar concerns.

“Martinpur and Youngsenabad are Christian villages. Our public address systems have only been used for God’s Word and to give glory to His name,” Pastor Lal said. “They [police] registered a case against us only to intimidate us into restricting our worship. We won’t accept this at any cost.”

He said that Muslim prayer leaders used public address systems with impunity even though they were the ones who had actually been restricted from using it, other than regular calls to prayer (azaans).

“We have never said a word against any religion, let alone Islam,” Pastor Lal said. “When the villagers don’t have an issue with praise and worship on PA systems, who are the police to interfere?”

Malik Aftab, a village elder from Youngsenabad, told Compass that the villagers would not let police arrest any of the pastors.

“They [the police] are provoking us unnecessarily by registering a case against the pastors on Christmas day,” Aftab said. “Has anyone arrested any mullah [Muslim prayer leader] when they are addressing Eid sermons on loudspeakers? Why the discrimination?”

Chaudhry Habil Qaiser, 90, who is one of the oldest residents in Martinpur village, said he and his 86-year-old wife cannot go to church for praise and worship due to their old age.

“We join the congregation in praise and worship while listening to the church loudspeakers,” he said. “The government should not impose such restrictions in our village.”

Nankana District Police Officer Shahzad Waheed said the pastors had been booked for violating the Amplifier Act, but he had no explanation for why Muslim clerics were not booked for misusing loudspeakers when delivering hours-long sermons on the Muslim festival of Eid and for Friday prayers, especially as these acts led directly to introduction of the Amplifier Act.

Nankana district is the same one that Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death on blasphemy charges, lived in before her conviction. Her village of Ittanwali is about 15 kilometers (nine miles) from Martinpur and Youngsenabad.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Mother Condemned for ‘Blasphemy’ Stunned, Shattered

First woman sentenced to die for speaking ill of Muhammad says she never got to defend herself.

SHEIKHUPURA, Pakistan, November 17 (CDN) — Ashiq Masih, with his stooped posture, frail body and dull yellow eyes, stands in a small compartment in the Sheikhupura District Jail with his three daughters – Sidra, Eesha and Eeshum. The girls are weeping silently.

On the other side of a metal grille is Asia Noreen, the birth mother of two of the girls and the first woman in Pakistan to receive the death sentence on charges of blaspheming Islam’s prophet. Eeshum, 12-years-old and mentally disabled, whines like a baby for her mother, asking her when she will be back.

“I will be back,” she says to her daughters, as they feel their mother’s fingers through the gaps in the grille. “Don’t you worry, now.” But tears run down her face, too.

Arrested on June 19, 2009, Asia (alternatively spelled Aaysa) Noreen was accused of blaspheming Muhammad and defaming Islam. A judge under pressure from area Islamists convicted her under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes on Nov. 8.

“I don’t know why – when I walked into court that day, I just knew,” she said, tears returning to her eyes and her voice shaking. “And when the judge announced my death sentence, I broke down crying and screaming. In the entire year that I have spent in this jail, I have not been asked even once for my statement in court. Not by the lawyers and not by the judge. After this, I have lost hope in any kind of justice being given to me.”

In an interview with Compass at the jail northwest of Lahore, Punjab Province, Noreen said the triggering incident resulted from a “planned conspiracy” to “teach her a lesson,” as villagers in Ittanwali, near Nankana Sahib about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore, resented her and her family because of a few mishaps.

“What my village people have accused me of is a complete lie,” she said. “I had previously had a row over a trivial issue of water running out of my house onto the street, and a man called Tufail verbally abused me. On June 14, when I was out picking falsas [a type of berry] with about 30 women, they again asked me to convert to Islam.”

Noreen said the women of the village frequently asked her to renounce Christianity while they worked in the fields, and that she refused each time.

“This time, too, I said that I saw no reason why I should leave my own religion,” she said. “They then asked me about Jesus Christ, and I told them to go and ask the local mullah and not to bother me with those questions.”

Meantime, one of the women asked her for water, she said. After she had fetched it, the others told the woman not to drink water brought by an “untouchable” and “dirty woman,” Noreen said.

“I asked them if Christians were not human …why the discrimination?” she said. “This annoyed them, and they started verbally abusing me. We were soon engaged in a heated argument.”

She said that five days later, a mob led by Qari (one who has memorized the Quran) Muhammad Saalim burst upon her after some of the women told him about the incident in the fields. The mob pressured her to admit that she had blasphemed.

“They have been saying that I confessed to my crime, but the fact is that I said I was sorry for any word that I may have said during the argument that may have hurt their feelings,” she said.

Police arrived as they were beating her and took Noreen into custody, where they registered a case under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws against her based on the complaint of the imam.

“They [police] registered a false complaint, because the complainant [Saalim] was never present at the scene,” she said.

Noreen said she has been heart-broken and shattered since the conviction. Her husband immediately tried to console her.

“Everything will be just fine, you just have to stay steadfast in your faith,” Masih told her. “All of us are here beside you. Everyone is praying for you.”

His words seemed to give her some hope, but she turned and asked Compass a question that no one has been able to answer for her.

“How can an innocent person be accused, have a case in court after a false FIR [First Information Report], and then be given the death sentence, without even once taking into consideration what he or she has to say?”

A pastor from Sharing Life Ministry who has been ministering to Noreen during her confinement and was present at all hearings told Compass that the judge had retired to his chambers three times before announcing the verdict.

“He was visibly tense,” the pastor said. “The presence of a mob outside the courtroom was instrumental in the delivery of this harsh verdict.”

Sidra, about 15 years old and one of three children born to Masih from a previous marriage, indicated she was traumatized by the attack on her step-mother.

“I saw that mob burst upon my mother, slap her and beat her up,” she said, her eyes both sad and fearful. “I saw them push her hard against a wall and tear her clothes. They were abusing her. I went to free her from their grip, and I heard them say to my mother, ‘Admit that you said derogatory things about prophet Muhammad, and we will leave you alone.’ Why would my mother ever do anything like that?”

Noreen broke in, “Why was an FIR filed against me by Qari Saalim? Who is he? He doesn’t even know what I said or did.”

Noreen’s lawyers filed an appeal against the Nankana sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court on Friday (Nov. 12), and the court is likely to take up the case soon.

Sidra said Muslim villagers have bullied her and others in the family. She said a man who has two children of his own beat Eesha.

Noreen said police have not harmed her, unusual for Pakistani suspects in blasphemy cases.

“I was never even mentally harassed by the police,” she said, adding that fellow inmates were also treating her well.

Sohail Johnson of the Sharing Life Ministry, which has been following the case from the onset, said authorities may have been aware that the sensitive nature of the case would instantly bring it into public light.

Noreen said she has not lost faith in Jesus.

“He will rescue me from this fake case and I will return home – please ask everyone to pray for me,” she said as two prison guards arrived in the barrack to escort her back to her cell.

In spite of international attention, there has been little response from the government of Pakistan or civil society. No local organization has planned demonstrations to protest the verdict, which could set a dangerous precedent.

Shahbaz Bhatti, federal minister for minorities and a Christian, has written to the Punjab Province government requesting protection for Noreen and her family, both inside and outside jail. During the visit to Sheikhupura, however, Compass observed no special security measures for her family.

Report from Compass Direct News

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