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


Promise of negotiated settlement fades; Catholic leaders threatened with legal action.

HANOI, September 26 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities in Hanoi have responded to months of Catholic prayer vigils and demonstrations over disputed land by destroying the one-time residence of the papal nuncio in central Hanoi.

In suddenly bulldozing the land that once served as the Vatican embassy and residence near St. Joseph’s Cathedral last Friday (Sept. 19), the government broke its promise to Catholic leaders in February to negotiate a settlement concerning the property.

The destruction of the building held sacred by Catholics is the latest blow to Christians’ long struggle to get the government to return confiscated church properties. Catholic, Protestant and other religious leaders deemed the government response to peaceful Catholic pressure a serious setback for religious freedom.

Authorities cite Vietnamese law stipulating that lands subject to “land management and socialist land reform policies in place before 1991” cannot be considered.

On Monday (Sept. 22) the Vietnam News Agency reported that the Catholic Church ceded the Nha Chung Vatican Embassy property to the state in 1961 and that it would be turned into a library and park.

“Bookworms will soon be able to enjoy the facilities offered by a brand-new library, located at 42 Nha Chung Street, in Hoan Kiem District,” the state reported. “In addition to all of the services usually offered by a library, situated on the premises of an existing three-story, French-designed building surrounded by greenery and including a childrens’ playground, the renovation, which began last Friday, aims to better meet Hanoians’ demands for relaxation.”

Sources said Vietnam’s frequent pronouncements of new openness to religion, and the formation of a joint Catholic/government working committee regarding relationships with the Vatican and other outstanding matters, may have led Catholics to test the waters. Late last year Catholics began to hold prayer vigils outside the fence of the long-vacant Vatican Embassy seized by the government in the mid-1950s.

The historic building property on Nha Chung Street is adjacent to the Hanoi archbishop and cardinal’s residence and only a half block away from St. Joseph’s Cathedral in Hanoi’s Old Quarter.

The daily morning and evening prayer vigils began to draw large crowds, especially on Saturdays and Sundays, when thousands came to Masses at the cathedral. Authorities in a country where demonstrations are not allowed became seriously worried when warnings to stop went unheeded.

In discussion with Catholic leaders in late February, the government agreed to negotiate a settlement in good faith on the condition that Catholic leaders would call a halt to the prayer vigils. Archbishop of Hanoi Ngo Quang Kiet told Compass in April that after agreeing to a joint working committee, the government showed no sincerity in building relationships or in settling grievances.

In late August an aide to the archbishop told Compass in Hanoi that the twice daily prayer vigils had resumed. At that time about 100 people participated each time, but the number and intensity was growing. Catholic leaders made no secret of their appeal to prayer and assembled people as their only tools in their struggle with the government for redress on confiscated properties.

In recent weeks the Redemptorists at Thai Ha, also in Hanoi, also began prayer vigils to recover some of their large property. Over the years their part of an original plot of 60,000 square meters had been reduced by government confiscation to less than 2,000 square meters.

According to observers, the Catholics conducted themselves during their vigils with decorum and order as they reverently marched, prayed and sang. The government’s response however, quickly escalated from accusing the Catholics of interfering with traffic to accusing them of all night public disturbances – and then accusing Catholic leaders of inciting riots and breaking religion laws.


Catholic Leaders Warned

Authorities this week delivered a written warning to Archbishop Kiet warning him of “extreme action” if he did not stop the daily prayer vigils. They also issued a warning to four priests at a Hanoi church locked in the land dispute. The archbishop and priests are accused of “stirring the population” and encouraging illegal religious activity.

State and Hanoi city media releases and radio and TV coverage during September painted the Catholics in the worst possible light; sources said the media fabricated stories and paid people to speak against the Catholics. With no opportunity to make their side of the story known through Vietnam’s state-controlled media, Catholics are reporting events through VietCatholic News, Zenit and other overseas news sites.

Catholic calls for media to retract specific, demonstrably false stories and appeals to press laws have gone entirely unheeded. Rather, sources said, improbable accusations and vicious slander against Catholics sharply escalated.

Vietnam Cardinal Jean Baptiste Pham Minh Man, archbishop of Saigon, wrote a letter to all priests, religious and faithful on Monday (Sept. 22) denouncing the state’s media lies. Unrest is spreading throughout Vietnam’s Catholic community, believed to number more than 7 million, as the letter by the cardinal and others by bishops are read in the churches.


Thugs Bussed In

Demonstrations escalated this week with estimates of 7,000 to 10,000 people, including students gathered at Thai Ha on Wednesday night (Sept. 24). It was said to be the largest public demonstration since the Communist unification of Vietnam 33 years ago.

Wednesday afternoon (Sept. 24), hundreds of police and plainclothes officers tried to control an upset crowd of Catholics as a statue of the Virgin Mary was removed from the Vatican Embassy area under police protection and taken to an unknown location. The next day, sources said, authorities recruited gangs that included uniformed Communist youth league members and others and bussed them to the site, where they attacked Catholic protestors outside the archbishop’s residence.

Similar gangs destroyed property, including sacred items at Thai Ha, the same day.

The state media also announced that the 17,000-square meter Thai Ha Redemptorist property in Hanoi is also to be turned into a public park.

The reversion to old-style, default Communist repression involving violence cloaked in lies is also worrying to Vietnam’s Protestants, some of whom have joined Catholics in the prayer vigils.

Protestant leaders contacted by Compass were united in their disappointment in and condemnation of the government’s belligerent response to peaceful prayer vigils.

“Sadly, the government has again shown its true attitude toward religions,” said one Protestant leader. “We have doubted the sincerity of recent improvements, and now they have clearly shown everyone what is still in their hearts.”

Some Vietnam observers fear the government’s belligerence may be evidence of hard-liners’ ascendance in an ongoing struggle with more moderate reformers. The timing of this property destruction, some Vietnamese church leaders said, is calculated to take advantage of uncertainty in the United States, especially as elections draw near.  

Report from Compass Direct News