Violent Death of Girl in Pakistan Spurs Push for Justice

Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.

In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.

An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.

Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.

Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.

“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.

Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.

Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.

Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.

“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”

Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.

A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.

“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”

As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.

Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”

A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”

Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.

Family Beaten in Court

On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.

Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.

The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.

Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.

At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.

After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.

Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.

In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.

Report from Compass Direct News 


More attacks launched in Orissa and Karnataka; Orissa archbishop threatened with death.

NEW DELHI, September 19 (Compass Direct News) – After three weeks of widespread attacks on Christians and their property in Orissa state and other parts of the country, the federal government finally warned two states that their failure to prevent violence could lead to the imposition of “President’s Rule.”

As more incidents of violence were reported from Orissa and the southern state of Karnataka yesterday, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) issued an official warning to the two states under Article 355 of the Indian Constitution, Indo-Asian News Service (IANS) reported. The article requires state governments to function with due respect to constitutional provisions, setting up a potential showdown between the federal UPA, led by the Congress Party (Indian National Congress), and Orissa and Karnataka states ruled by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The BJP is the largest opposition party at the federal level. The UPA also said it was keeping a close watch on the activities of Hindu extremist groups, including the Bajrang Dal, youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), which is allegedly behind the ongoing violence, reported Press Trust of India.

The governments of the two states under the scanner suspected political motives behind the federal government’s move. The BJP today dared the federal government to impose President’s Rule in Karnataka.

“We dare the Centre to go a step ahead and implement Article 356 [empowering the federal government to impose emergency rule],” BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad told IANS. “They will have to bear the consequences and the people of the country would give them a fitting reply.”

The Christian community, however, saw a ray of hope in the federal government’s move. Father Dominic Emmanuel of the Delhi Catholic Archdiocese told Compass that the federal government’s warning has brought “at least some consolation” to the country’s Christian community, which forms 2.3 percent of the total population.

The violence began following the assassination of a VHP leader and icon of Hindu nationalism, Laxmanananda Saraswati, and four of his disciples in Orissa’s Kandhamal district on Aug. 23. Although Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, the VHP put the blame on local Christians, saying they killed him because he was resisting conversion of Hindus to Christianity.

While the state government says 24 people, mainly Christian, have died in the Orissa violence, the All India Christian Council (AICC) maintained that 45 Christians were confirmed dead and five more were still missing.

According to the AICC, 14 districts of Orissa witnessed violence with Kandhamal as the epicenter. It reported at least 50,000 people from 300 villages have been affected by the violence, with hundreds still hiding in forests, and 4,000 houses and 115 churches burned or destroyed.


New Attacks in Orissa

Incidents of violence continued in Orissa’s Kandhamal district. Mobs burned down two prayer houses on Wednesday night (Sept. 17) in Mundigarh and Lankagarh areas under Tumudibandh police station in Kandhamal, reported The Indian Express daily.

“The district administration foiled another attempt by the troublemakers to set afire the Phiringia police station last night,” the newspaper reported. “Both roads to the town, Phulbani-Phiringia and Gochhapada-Phiringia, were blocked by felling of trees.”

The administration, however, learned of the plan, cleared the blockade and moved security forces to the town.

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath received a death threat.

“Just last week I received a chilling letter from Hindu groups which said ‘blood for blood, life for life.’ What can I do?” Cheenath said yesterday while at the Catholic Bishop Conference of India office in Delhi, according to IANS.

The letter stated that the archbishop, who has been staying in Bhubaneswar for three decades and whose house was stoned a few days ago, would be killed if he returned to Orissa. “They [Hindu groups] threatened to kill me,” he said. “Is this how civilized society behaves?”

Archbishop Cheenath, Delhi’s Archbishop Vincent Concessao and Father Babu Joseph, spokesman for the Catholic Church in India, met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh yesterday to apprise him of unabated violence in Orissa.

“Despite your consoling words and assurances, the violence still continues in some parts of Kandhamal,” they said in a memorandum, which carried a list of violent incidents that took place in Kandhamal after Sept. 11, when the Orissa state government told the Supreme Court of India that normalcy was returning in the district.

“Looting, arson and vandalism continue,” said the memorandum. “Security forces are mainly in the towns, main roads and are not moving to the interior parts of Kandhamal. Crimes are being freely committed by the culprits with impunity.”

Forced conversions from Christianity to Hinduism are continuing in the villages of Orissa, the memo said. “Christians are forced under threat of death, burning of their houses, or death of their relatives. After conversion, they have to burn their Bibles, religious articles and their own house, to prove that they are genuine Hindus. All other Hindu ceremonies are imposed on them.”


More Assaults in Karnataka

Attacks continued also in Karnataka. According to New Delhi-based Asian News International news agency, unidentified people launched attacks in three districts of the state on Wednesday (Sept. 17).

While a mob destroyed Bibles and other Christian literature and vandalized furniture the St. George Church in Ujire area of the Dakshina Kannada district, another group of people pelted a statue of the Virgin Mary with stones outside the St. Mary’s Church in Kolar district. Yet another group of people damaged furniture at a church in Chikamagalur district.

Hindu extremists in Karnataka began targeting Christians after the state education ministry served show-cause notices to over 2,000 Christian schools in the state for staying shut on Aug. 29 to protest the violence against Christians in Orissa.

Attacks on churches were reported from several parts of the state on consecutive Sundays following Aug. 29. The Bajrang Dal claimed responsibility for most of the attacks, which were mostly aimed at churches of the New Life Fellowship ministry.

The Karnataka state government today announced a probe by a retired judge of the high court into anti-Christian attacks, reported IANS.

Earlier this week, there were incidents of violent attacks on Christians and their institutions also in the southern states of Kerala, the north-central states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, and Jharkhand state in the east.


Tensions in National Capital

On Wednesday (Sept. 17), a group of unidentified people believed to be Hindu extremists sought to create tensions in the national capital Delhi.

A mob forcibly took possession of a lawn in front of a Catholic church, God’s Light Church, in Trilokpuri area in East Delhi, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI).

“The mob broke open an outside gate to the lawn as well as the inside gate leading from the church and threatened to construct a temple there,” EFI reported. “They have also locked the outside gate to the lawn/garden as well as the inside gate leading from the church to the lawn.”

The church building has been in the area since 1991.

“It is a well planned move to create a confrontation with the church in Delhi too after the incidents in the states of Orissa, Karnataka and Kerala,” EFI reported. “The miscreants have resorted to this step to gauge the reaction of the church before doing anything further.”

Supporters of the VHP also tried to harass a Christian institution in the neighboring state of Haryana.

The Rev. Madhu Chandra of the AICC said some VHP extremists filed a complaint with Hisar district authorities against a school run by the North India Christian Mission for closing the school “illegally” on Aug. 29, the day all Christian schools remained closed to protest violence in Orissa. The complaint, filed in Barwala town, also accused school personnel of “converting” students and people of the area, as if conversion were illegal in India.

The AICC will hold a rally in Vijayawada in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh tomorrow (Sept. 20) to urge the governments of affected states to arrest those responsible for the anti-Christian violence.

Dr. John Dayal, AICC secretary general, returned from Orissa yesterday and warned that the situation in the country was getting “out of hand.”

Report from Compass Direct News