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 


Attacker said he aimed to stop Christian conversions; Hindu extremist connection suspected.

NEW DELHI, March 10 (Compass Direct News) – In an effort to stop conversions to Christianity in the eastern state of Bihar, a 25-year-old ailing man on Sunday (March 8) exploded a crude bomb in a church and shot the pastor.

Police Inspector Hari Krishna Mandal told Compass that the attacker, Rajesh Singh, had come fully prepared to kill the pastor, Vinod Kumar, in Baraw village in the Nasriganj area of Rohtas district, and then take his own life.

“However,” Mandal said, “believers caught him before he could do more damage or kill himself.”

The 35-year-old pastor was taken to a hospital in nearby Varanasi, in the neighboring state of Uttar Pradesh and at press time was out of danger of losing his life, according to a leader of Gospel Echoing Missionary Society (GEMS) who requested anonymity.

The church, Prarthana Bhawan (House of Prayer), belongs to GEMS. Around 30 people were in the church when the attack took place. Some women in the church sustained burns in the blast.

“Rajesh Singh threw a crude bomb from the window of the church, and the sound of the explosion created a chaos in the congregation,” said Inspector Mandal. As members of the church began to run out, he added, Singh came into the building and shot the pastor with a handmade pistol from point-blank range.

Singh had more bombs to explode and three more bullets in his pistol, but church members caught hold of him and handed him over to police, the inspector said.

“In his statement, Singh said he was personally against Christian conversions and wanted to kill the pastor to stop conversions,” Mandal said. “He wanted to take his own life after killing the pastor, and this is why he had more bullets in his pistol and an overdose of anesthesia in a syringe.”

Asked if Singh had any links with extremist Hindu nationalist groups, the inspector said no such organization was active in the area, though local Christians say Hindu extremist presence has increased recently. The GEMS source said people allegedly linked with a Hindu nationalist group had sent a threatening letter to the pastor, asking him to stop preaching in the area.

The source said the incident could have been fallout from conversions in nearby Mithnipur village, where a Hindu family had received Christ after being healed from a mental illness around six months ago. Singh also lives in Mithnipur.

“Pastor Kumar had not been visiting the village, fearing opposition from the villagers who were not happy with the conversion of this family,” the GEMS source said. “The same church’s cross had also been damaged about a year ago by unidentified people.”

The source said he believes that although Singh’s affiliation or linkage with a Hindu nationalist group has not been established, it is likely that he was instigated to kill the pastor by an extremist group. Pastor Kumar, married with three children, has been working in Rohtas district for the last 12 years.

Local Christians complain that the presence of the Hindu extremist Sangh Parivar (a family of organizations linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group) has recently increased in the area. They say the Hindu nationalist conglomerate has been spewing hate against Christians for more than 10 years, accusing them of using monetary incentives and fraudulent means and foreign money to convert Hindus.

The attacker has an amputated hand and was said to be mentally disturbed since 1996, when he was diagnosed with cancer, Inspector Mandal said.

“According to the villagers,” he said, “Singh had been mentally disturbed ever since he was diagnosed with cancer, and later tuberculosis, although there is no medical report to substantiate this.”

The government of Bihar is ruled by a coalition of a regional party, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) party, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The JD-U is also part of the National Democratic Alliance, the main opposition coalition at the federal level led by the BJP. The JD-U, however, is not perceived as a supporter of Hindu nationalism.

Of the 82 million people, mostly Hindu, in Bihar, only 53,137 are Christian, according to the 2001 census.

Report from Compass Direct News


Christian, human rights advocates call medical exam report false.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, February 19 (Compass Direct News) – Christian and human rights advocates said doctors likely fabricated a medical report that falsely concluded there were no signs of rape in the wife of a Bangladeshi pastor whom village Muslims have now threatened for pressing charges.

The Rev. Shankar Hazra of Chaksing Baptist church in Gopalganj district, 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Dhaka, said influential area Muslims have used threats to try to force him and his wife to withdraw charges of robbery and rape; he delined to name them out of fear of reprisals.

“If I do not withdraw the case, they said they will make a ‘Ganges [river] of blood’ here,” Rev. Hazra said.

Resident medical officer Dr. Ali Akbar of Sadar Hospital in Gopalganj told Compass that a report given to police on Thursday (Feb. 12) stated that a medical examination indicated the wife of Rev. Hazra was not raped.

“There was no sign of forceful intercourse in her body at the time of examination, which means the victim was not raped,” Dr. Akbar said.

Rev. Hazra told Compass that villagers said the examining doctors had been paid to falsify the medical report.

“I heard from some people in the locality that 50,000 taka [US$740] had been given to the doctor to twist the report,” he said.

The pastor accuses area Muslims of tying him up, robbing their living quarters at the church property and gang-raping his wife on Jan. 6. Rev. Hazra said that before leaving, the assailants also desecrated the church building.

Human rights advocate Rosaline Costa, coordinator of Hotline Human Rights in Bangladesh, told Compass that she would not trust the medical report.

“What my long experience as a human rights activist says is that these sorts of medical reports are always distorted by the accused if the victim is poor or a minority,” she said. “Police and medical doctors are influenced financially to give negative reports.”

Such false medical reports are a common phenomenon in Bangladesh for both minorities and also for poor majority people, Costa said.

“The victim is very poor and a minority Christian, so the report could be manipulated by the doctors,” said Costa. She said a DNA test not subject to bias would be conclusive.

The Rev. Milton Biswas, general secretary of Bangladesh Baptist Church Sangha, also suggested a DNA test.

“I am gob-smacked and shocked at how the report became false,” he said. “She might not have been raped, but a DNA test is needed to say whether she was raped or not.”

Rev. Hazra, 55, said he and his 45-year-old wife had gone to a toilet outside their home at about 2 a.m. on Jan. 6 when a man suddenly thrust a rifle at him. Seven or eight people tied him to a pillar on the porch, blindfolded his wife and took her inside the house, he said.

After the assailants had robbed the house of valuables and raped his wife, Rev. Hazra said, he managed to untie himself and found his wife lying unconscious on the bed.

Rev. Hazra and his wife said all of the assailants were Muslims, but that villagers tried to implicate non-Muslims and portray the attack as resulting from internal conflicts among Christians.

Police, influential villagers and local Muslim-owned media are trying to conceal likely anti-Christian motives for the crime, he said, by falsely accusing two Christians and a Hindu of participating. Police wrote the First Information Report (FIR) implicating the Christians and Hindu based on lies from villagers, and Rev. Hazra signed it without reading it due to his shaken state, he said.

Rev. Hazra’s wife, Depali Hazra, later filed an affidavit contesting the FIR in which the two Christians and one Hindu, along with a known criminal who is Muslim, were accused of the gang rape and theft. The Christians and Hindu were not involved in the rape and robbery, she reported in the affidavit.

“I was seriously ill after [the] gang rape, and my husband’s mind was unhinged at that time,” she reported. “Only [the] Muslim man Ilias Mridha and his yes-men did it. When I recuperated a little bit from illness, I came to know about the names of the Christians and Hindu in the case. Spontaneously and knowledgably I did this affidavit to get rid of those Christian and Hindu names from the case copy.”

Local Christians said Mridha, 38, who has been jailed several times, commits crimes under the direction of influential Muslims in the area.  

Report from Compass Direct News


Attorney, relative of Christian parents fear they are likely to lose custody of daughters.

ISTANBUL, August 12 (Compass Direct News) – Amid pressure from radical Muslim clerics, a medical board is expected to determine the age of a Christian Pakistani girl allegedly forced to convert to Islam. The medical report on 13-year-old Saba Masih, who married a Muslim man, is due by her Aug. 20 custody hearing.

The custody battle over her and her 10-year-old sister, Aneela Masih – two girls raised as Christians who were kidnapped and allegedly converted to Islam – may be decided on their testimonies even though they contradict court evidence. Saba Masih, married off to the Muslim man after the kidnapping, has twice claimed in court that she is 17 years old – Pakistani law requires females to be at least 16 to marry without permission of legal guardians.

At a hearing last Wednesday (Aug. 6), the Lahore High Court’s Multan branch ruled that the district medical board of Multan will examine Saba Masih to determine if she is old enough to marry of her own volition. Aneela Masih claims to have embraced Islam, though as a minor she cannot legally do so.

The court has refused to accept the girls’ birth certificates or baptism records as evidence for their ages. Under Pakistani law a minor cannot marry regardless of his or her religion.

The two sisters were kidnapped on June 26 while traveling to visit their uncle in Sarwar Shaheed, northwest of Multan. Saba Masih was married to Amjad Ali, a Muslim, the next day, and the kidnappers filed for custody of the girls on June 28 based on their conversion.

In a July 12 ruling, District and Sessions Court Judge Main Naeem Sardar awarded custody of the girls to the kidnappers based on Saba Masih’s testimony that she was 17 and had converted to Islam. He did not accept the girls’ birth certificates as evidence of their ages.

In a July 29 hearing, Judge Saghir Ahmed said he did not believe the girls converted to Islam of their own volition and ordered them to be sent to a government women’s shelter, so that they could think freely until the Aug. 6 hearing.

At that hearing, however, both girls claimed to have embraced Islam, and Saba Masih claimed once again to be 17 and thus able to marry. Judge Saeed Ejaz ordered that she be sent to a medical examination to determine her real age.

Muslim clerics are already threatening the medical board, claiming that since the girls have embraced Islam they should not be returned to the custody of their Christian parents, said Khalid Raheel, the kidnapped girls’ uncle.

“Muslim clerics are threatening the judge. [Saba] said she was 17 because she was threatened,” he said. “[The judge] told the medical officer to get her age checked by the medical board … [but] Muslim clerics are threatening the medical board.”

The medical board will submit its report at the next hearing on Aug. 20.

Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing the Christian parents, said that if the report says Saba Masih has reached puberty or is between the ages of 16 and 17, then the court will likely award her Muslim husband custody over her – even though her marriage is invalid since she is a minor.

“The law has been amended, and no minor can be contracted into marriage with [guardian or parental] permission or without permission,” he said. “But because of religious pressure, the court can decide otherwise.”

The court cannot grant custody of Aneela Masih to the kidnappers since both sides agree she is 10. Because she reiterated at the August 6 hearing that she had converted to Islam, however, it is not clear if she will be returned to her Christian parents.

According to a strict interpretation of Islamic law, a non-Muslim cannot have custody of a Muslim child.

“I think Aneela will not be given to the parents but sent to a shelter or child protection care bureau,” said Rehman, a member of the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan. “She can’t reside with the parents, who are Christians.”

After the hearing, the sisters were returned to the government-run Dar-Ul-Aman women’s shelter, where they have stayed since July 29. They have been forbidden from seeing their parents or the Muslim kidnappers.


Threats Continue

The kidnappers, however, continue to intimidate the girls, said Raheel, their uncle.

“Even in the women’s shelter run by the government, they keep on calling them on the phone,” he said. “They keep on threatening them there also. That’s why they can’t change their minds.”

He said the kidnappers are threatening the girls’ parents to stop trying to regain custody of their daughters.

“They told them not to go to court, or they would kill them,” Raheel said.

Attorney Rehman said the courthouse at the Aug. 20 hearing could be a charged environment, since the local press has published stories advocating the kidnappers’ claims.

Raheel noted that the local Urdu papers, Jang and Xpress, quoted the kidnappers as saying the Christian family was threatening them for the return of their daughters even though they had freely chosen to become Muslims.

A priest at the Masih family’s parish known only as Father Asab said many Muslims have expressed their sympathy to the Christian family but are afraid of speaking out against the perpetrators.

“Many Muslims are also with us, those who understand,” he said. “But the majority is afraid to tell the truth. In this case many people in our area, many Muslims, know that those who kidnapped the girls … have a bad name in society. But even Muslim families are frightened to tell the truth.”

Report from Compass Direct News