Pakistani Christian Sentenced to Life under ‘Blasphemy’ Law

Young man convicted of ‘desecrating Quran’ by accusation of rival shopkeeper.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, January 22 (CDN) — A young Christian shopkeeper was sentenced to a life term in prison and fined more than $1,000 last week following a dubious conviction of desecrating the Quran, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Peter Jacob, general secretary of the NCJP, said 22-year-old Imran Masih of the Faisalabad suburb of Hajvairy was convicted of desecrating the Quran (Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code) and thereby outraging religious feelings (Section 295-A) by Additional District & Sessions Judge Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan on Jan. 11. The conviction was based on the accusation of a rival shopkeeper who, as part of an Islamic extremist proselytizing group, allegedly used a mosque loudspeaker system to incite a mob that beat Masih and ransacked his shop.

Neighboring shopkeeper Hajji Liaquat Abdul Ghafoor accused Masih of tearing out pages of the Quran and burning them on July 1, 2009. Denying that he burned any pages of the Quran, Masih told investigators that the papers he burned were a heap of old merchandise records he had gathered while cleaning his store.

Masih’s family members said Ghafoor fabricated the blasphemy case against him because of a business dispute. Nearby shopkeepers, initially reluctant to talk out of fear of reprisals but eventually speaking on condition of anonymity, told Compass that they had seen the two men arguing over business a few days before the incident occurred.

The shopkeepers said that when Masih burned the papers, Ghafoor started shouting that he had desecrated the Quran and blasphemed Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. In the case against Masih, police later accused Ghafoor of misusing the loudspeaker system of a mosque to stir up the mob.

“Ghafoor started shouting that Masih had desecrated the Quran and made blasphemous remarks about Islam and prophet Muhammad,” said one of the shopkeepers. “Ghafoor spread misconceptions about Imran Masih, and a mob of angry Muslim men unaware of the facts attacked Masih and viciously beat him, looted his shop and later handed him over to police.”

The shopkeepers added that Ghafoor was a hard-line Muslim and part of an Islamic proselytizing group.

Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code, desecrating the Quran, is punishable by imprisonment for life. In accordance with Section 295-A (instigating religious hatred and outraging religious feelings), Masih was also sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170); if he is unable to pay the fine, he will be assessed an additional six months in jail.

A conviction for blaspheming Muhammad (Section 295-C) is punishable by death under Pakistani’s notorious blasphemy laws. Widely condemned by the international community as easily invoked to settle personal enmities, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under review in recent months, but to no avail.

The laws are routinely invoked to harass members of minority communities. Additionally, while police cannot make arrests without a court-issued warrant for Section 295-A, they can arrest suspected blasphemers under sections 295-B and 295-C on the complaint of a single individual.

Masih is incarcerated at District Jail Faisalabad. Sources said he plans to appeal his sentence to the Lahore High Court.

“No pages of the Quran were burned or desecrated,” said one member of Masih’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was just a lame excuse to implicate him in a fabricated case of blasphemy.”

Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian member of Punjab’s legislative assembly and Sargodha zone head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said Masih’s case was just one in a long list of incidents in which blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal grudges. He said that APMA would provide legal assistance to Masih.

Report from Compass Direct News 


Six months after attack, Muslim assailants still at large; weary congregation faces heat, rain.

GARISSA, Kenya, March 5 (Compass Direct News) – Six months after a gang of Muslim youths ruined a church building in this town in northern Kenya, Christians still worshipping in the sweltering heat of the open air say they feel disillusioned that officials have done nothing to punish the culprits or restore their structure.

On a sunny afternoon last Sept. 14, when angry Muslim youths threw more than 400 members of the Redeemed Gospel Church out of their church building, the Christians hoped they would be able to return to the ruins of their former structure. That hope is quickly giving way to anger, hopelessness and despair.

“After six months in the open, the church feels tired and cheated,” said pastor David Matolo. “We are fed up with the empty promises from the government administration.”

He said the church, which began worshipping in Garissa in early 2001 with only a dozen members, is fast shrinking.

“Our church membership has decreased, which is of great concern to me,” he told Compass. “The church thinks that the government has decided to buy time – almost every month I do book appointments with the relevant authorities, who on several occasions have given us a deaf ear.”

Since the attack, church members have been meeting at the town show grounds. Just a few miles from the Somali border, the site has few trees to protect the congregation from the scorching sun, with temperatures ranging from 92 to 104 degrees F (30 to 40 degrees C).

Asked why he thought government officials were reluctant to grant the church a permanent place of worship as promised, an irritated Matolo did not hesitate to reply.

“The administration has decided, ‘kutesa [inflict pain on us],’ always making promises that never come to pass,” he said. “At times the provincial commissioner deliberately decides not to take my phone calls. I have had a painful experience.”

Matolo said he has asked the administration either to allow the church to build a new structure on land lying idle near a police training college or to let them return to their original site. “We are ready for any eventuality,” he said. “We feel that the administration is not concerned about our spiritual welfare.”

Asked about the pastor’s complaints, provincial police officer Stephen Chelimo told Compass, “The issue at the moment is not within my docket, but wholly rests upon the provincial commissioner.”

But Provincial Commissioner Stephen Maingi said the onus rested on the district commissioner. “Let the district commissioner sort this issue with the pastor,” Maingi said.

District Commissioner Onyango Ogango, in turn, indicated the church itself was the source of problems.

“If the church is allowed to return to their original site, we will expect a fight to erupt with the Muslims,” Ogango said. “Earlier on, the church began very well during its initial stage of inception with controlled worship, but later it turned out to hold noisy prayers and loud songs.”

Further questioned about these allegations, however, Ogango said he would call the pastor to discuss a resolution. Even so, Matolo said previous contact with the district commissioner did not leave him with high expectations.

“Our district commissioner seemed to have no feelings for our predicament,” he said. “The faces of the congregation members speak a lot.”

A glance at the worshippers confirmed his appraisal. They looked weary and anxious, with impending April rains expected to add to the indignity of their situation. Matolo said his congregation feels that soon it will be difficult to worship at all.

Even a temporary home did not appear to be forthcoming. The pastor said their request for a site near the provincial commissioner’s residence was dismissed on the grounds that it would create a security concern.


Radical Islamic Influence

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began in June 2007, when Muslims built a mosque too close to the church building – only three meters separated the two structures.

Matolo said pleas to District Commissioner Ogango did nothing to reverse the encroachment of Muslim worshippers.

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man. Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church.

Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Christians feel increasingly hunted and haunted as the spread of Islamic extremism is fast gaining ground in this town, located about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, the capital. In neighboring Somalia, newly elected President Sharif Sheikh Ahmed on Feb. 28 offered the introduction of sharia (Islamic law) in exchange for a truce with a rebel extremist group said to have ties to al Qaeda, al Shabaab; the rebels said they would keep fighting. Many fear that Muslim youths in this lawless part of Kenya will be tempted to adopt the radical, uncompromising posture of the fighters.

To date, the gang of more than 50 Muslim youths who attacked worshippers and brought their church to ruins have not been apprehended. Members of the congregation feel justice is increasingly elusive.

In Garissa, Muslims restrict churches in other ways. Christians are not allowed to pray, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, including the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, Full Gospel Churches of Kenya and the African Inland Church.

Report from Compass Direct News


Case against two converts drags on; media already passed sentenced on Christianity.

ISTANBUL, November 12 (Compass Direct News) – Two years into a trial for “insulting Turkishness” that has been light on evidence and heavy on mud-slinging at Turkey’s Protestant community, a court proceeding last week brought no progress.

Another witness for the prosecution failed to appear in the trial of Turkish Christians Turan Topal and Hakan Tastan, charged with “insulting Turkishness” and spreading Christianity through illegal methods. Moreover, a Justice Ministry answer to the court about the viability of charges under Turkey’s controversial Article 301 had yet to arrive at the court last week.

In the last hearing in June, Silivri Criminal Court Judge Mehmet Ali Ozcan ordered a review of the two Christian converts’ alleged violations of the controversial article of the Turkish penal code on “insulting Turkishness.” But the court is still waiting for the Justice Ministry to decide whether they can be tried under Article 301 of the penal code.

The judge set the next hearing for Feb. 24, 2009 while the court awaits a response on whether the Christians can be charged under the controversial article.

Topal and Tastan are still charged with reviling Islam (Article 216) and compiling information files on private citizens (Article 135).

In what critics called “cosmetic” revisions of Article 301, the Turkish government amended it in May to require Justice Ministry permission to file such cases. Put into effect on May 8, the changes also redefined the vague offense of “insulting Turkishness” to read “insulting the Turkish nation.”

While the court awaited a decision on Article 301, in the hearing on Nov. 4 it did free the defendants from forced attendance at future hearings. This, according to defense lawyer Haydar Polat, was the only progress made by the court; he added that a witness or evidence would have been better. For lack of these, he said, the prosecution has needlessly dragged out the case.

“In both cases [against them], the only acceptable progress is the testimony of a witness,” said Polat. “Then again, the fact that the defendants are free from having to attend every trial is in a sense progress too.”


Lame Witnesses

The initial charges prepared by the Silivri state prosecutor against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme,” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

Despite a court summons sent to the Silivri and Istanbul gendarme headquarters requesting six named gendarme soldiers to testify as prosecution witnesses in the case, none have stepped forward to testify.

“They will be called in the next hearing as well,” Polat told Compass.

At the June 24 hearing, two teenage witnesses for the prosecution declared they did not know the defendants and had never seen them before facing them in the courtroom. Several witnesses have failed to show up on various trial dates, and last week another witness called by prosecution, Fatih Kose, did not appear.

“There is no lack of witnesses, but as far as we are concerned, these characters’ accounts are irrelevant to the truth and full of contradictions,” said Polat. “I mean there is no believable and persuasive argument, nor a coherent witness.”

Last week a police officer from the precinct where Topal and Tastan were allegedly seen doing missionary activities was summoned to court to testify. He told the court that he indeed worked in the precinct but knew nothing about the activities of the two Christians.

Eleven months ago, the appointed prosecutor himself had demanded that the court acquit the two Christians, declaring there was “not a single concrete, credible piece of evidence” to support the accusations against them. This prosecutor was removed from the case, and two months later the judge hearing the case withdrew over prosecution complaints that he was not impartial.

Two key figures pressing the Article 301 charges and promoting sensational media coverage of the Silivri trial proceedings are now jailed themselves, unable to attend the hearings.

Both ultranationalist lawyer Kemal Kerincsiz and spokesperson Sevgi Erenerol of the Turkish Orthodox Church – a Turkish nationalist denomination with no significant following – are accused of playing leading roles in Ergenekon, an ultranationalist cabal of retired generals, politicians, journalists and mafia members under investigation for conspiracy.

Since mid-January, 47 people have been jailed and face trial for involvement in the alleged crime network, said to have orchestrated numerous killings and violence as part of a nationalist plot to overthrow the Turkish government by 2009.

Asked about the chances of closing the case that has made no progress for two years due to lack of evidence against the defendants, Polat said he was hopeful his clients would find justice in the Turkish legal labyrinth.

“As lawyers, we believe that both of our clients will be acquitted,” he said. “Come February we expect that the Justice Ministry will not approve the opening of a public case on the basis of ‘insulting Turkishness.’”


Slandering Christians

The trial of Topal and Tastan has included its share of mud-slinging at Turkish Protestants, estimated at 3,000 to 3,500 people in a country of 70 million, deepening the nation’s prejudices against them.

This legal battle has been less about guilt or innocence and more about tainting the community’s image, according to a member of the legal committee of the Alliance of Protestant Churches in Turkey.

The Christian Turk from the legal committee told Compass that in 2006, when the charges against Topal and Tastan first came to light, there were news reports for days claiming that Christians tricked children in elementary schools, paid people to come to church and gave women away for sex, among other absurd assertions.

“The goal was to create disinformation, and they succeeded at portraying Christians in a negative light,” he said.

The source said that this was the primary goal of ultranationalist lawyer Kerincsiz’s team, which he believes is behind the cases brought against Topal and Tastan as well as the delay in the outcome.

“On the first day of the hearings, when the case opened, I told those around me that nothing would come of this case,” he said.

The legal committee member said media created a psychological war against Turkish Christians. Other members of the Protestant community believe another goal was to deter any evangelism or outreach by Turkish Christians.

“It was to discourage the whole Christian community and quash them and discourage evangelism,” said another source.

The member of the legal committee said he believes that eventually Topal and Tastan will be acquitted. But even if they win the court case, the damage from the publicity war on the church will not be as easy to repair.

“I think everything will stay the same, because the case won’t be reported in the news,” he said. “The issue was not about whether these two were guilty or not. When this first broke out it was in the news for days. When it is over it will barely make it to a newspaper corner, and we won’t be able to give a message for the public because we don’t wield media power. We comfortably carry our quiet voice, and we will until then.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.

GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.

The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.

Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.

“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.

Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.

Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.

“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”

Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.

“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.

“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.

Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.

“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”

Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.

This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.

“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”

The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.

“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”


Elusive Justice

Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.

“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”

He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.

“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”

A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.

The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.

“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.

District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.

“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.

Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.

Report from Compass Direct News