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
Hindu extremists raid revival meeting in one area, while others attack gospel event in another.
NEW DELHI, April 27 (CDN) — Hindu extremists raided Christian events in India’s Madhya Pradesh state this month, leaving a visiting theology student dead and several other Christians injured.
The body of 23-year-old Amit Gilbert was recovered from a water well 25 feet from the site of a Christian revival meeting that 15 to 20 Hindu extremists attacked on April 17 in Gram Fallaiya, Post Pathakheda, Betul district. With covered heads and carrying iron rods and bamboo clubs, members of the Hindu extremist Dharam Sena and Bajrang Dal cut electricity at the night-time event and began striking, sending the more than 400 in attendance running, Christian leaders said.
Eyewitnesses said the assailants chased Gilbert, of Gorakhpur in Uttar Pradesh state, and beat him mainly on his legs. Police in the state controlled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said that for the moment they believe Gilbert accidentally fell into the well amid the chaos, but Christians present said that is unlikely.
His body was found with his head and legs submerged in the 1.5-meter deep water of the well, yet he had no water in his lungs or stomach when Christians drew him out, said Pastor Santwan Lal, organizer of the April 15-17 revival event, suggesting that Gilbert was dead before being thrown in.
“Amit was hit first and then picked up and thrown into the well,” Pastor Lal said. “If he had fallen into the well, he would have had more bruises and at least a broken bone or two, since the well is rocky and narrow. But that was not the case.”
Pastor Lal and others Compass spoke with said they believe the posture of the body leaves no doubt that Gilbert was murdered.
“He sustained an injury on the left side of his face near the ear,” Pastor Lal added.
An autopsy was conducted, but authorities are not disclosing findings, Pastor Lal said. Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Bajrang Dal are reportedly exerting intense pressure on local authorities.
Betul Assistant Sub-Inspector Santosh Jain told Compass that the results of the autopsy, conducted by a team of doctors, will not be released because they have now become politicized.
Police on April 19 arrested nine people in connection with the incident and charged them with rioting, violence and trespassing, but not murder. Officers also registered Gilbert’s death under the Section 174 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which pertains to inquiry and report on an incident involving death of a person whether suicide or otherwise.
“We are trying hard, but this case does not seem to be moving forward,” Jain said. “A report has been registered against 10 to 12 [initially] unidentified people, and we have so far arrested nine. All have accepted their involvement in the crime, and all belong to the Bajrang Dal. Not one of them is a local from Betul. Their bails have been rejected at the lower court.”
Arrested were Rakesh Dhurwe, Neeraj Rajput, Radheshyam Sahu, Sonu Rajput, Raju Kahar, Rajesh Oriya, Raju Deshmukh, Arun Thackrey, and Hemrath Bahalavi, he said.
Though police have initially determined that Gilbert fell into the well, they say they are open to the possibility that he was thrown into it.
Pastor Lal added that two women were also injured in the melee.
“As a result of the violence, two ladies attending the meeting were hit, and one of them was admitted in a local hospital for three days,” he said.
Christian leaders said Betul has increasingly witnessed such attacks since the BJP came to power in the state in 2004, with various incidents of Christians being beaten, arrested and intimidated.
The April 17 attack was sudden and without provocation or warning, Pastor Lal said. Soon after the assailants left, the Christians gathered to determine if anyone were missing. An unnamed girl and a nephew of the pastor were missing but later found, and that night Gilbert’s body was found when a Christian shined a flashlight into the well.
Gilbert was visiting as a volunteer to another pastor after having finished his Masters in Divinity degree from Central India Bible College, Itarsi, Madhya Pradesh, in March. He had reportedly insisted on staying to help Pastor Abhishek John in Sallaiya village in order to gain ministry experience.
Sources said April 17 was to have been Gilbert’s last day of volunteer service, as he was planning to return home to Uttar Pradesh the next day.
Rampage in Balaghat
In Balaghat on April 14 and 15, Hindu extremists attacked a three-day gospel meeting with fuel-bombs in spite of the presence of police summoned beforehand to provide security.
Prior to the event attended by 10,000 people in Balaghat’s Mulna stadium, local newspapers carried open threats issued by the Bajrang Dal and BJP workers against the Christian community. On April 14Bajrang Dal members threw two fuel-bombs into the stadium that did not explode.
“They had hurled petrol bombs even in the presence of the police,” Saurabh Panduria, a local Christian doctor, told Compass. “Thankfully it did not explode, or anything could have happened as there were many women, children and sick people in the crowd.”
The next day Bajrang Dal and the BJP workers attacked the event as well as the quarters where people who had come from outside Balaghat to attend the meetings were staying, including Kamla Nehru hall.
Police increased security for the April 15 meeting, but as it was drawing to a close about 150 BJP andBajrang Dal members surrounded the stadium. Some of them tried to storm in, but police repelled them. Hindu extremists responded by pelting them with stones and throwing fuel bombs at police vehicles. They also attempted to destroy stadium property.
Bajrang Dal workers Golu Thakre and Manu Yadav were among those who harassed participants at an afternoon meeting on April 15, said Dr. Amos Singh of Jeevan Jyoti Ministries in Balaghat.
“Darbari and Ganesh from Barai village in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh, and Sunil Jagne from Gondia, Maharashtra, were severely beaten by the Bajrang Dal people, and they were interrogated like they were criminals,” Singh said. “The police arrived later.”
At 5 p.m. extremists caught hold of some Christians and forced them to the BJP local office in Balaghat, where BJP and Bajrang Dal members assaulted at least three of them.
Police arrested nearly 23 Bajrang Dal members, including eight leaders. This prompted BJP Member of Parliament K.D. Deshmukh and Member of Legislative Assembly Ramesh Bhatere to lead a mob that surrounded the police station and protested throughout the night, loudly shouting slogans against the administration and the Christian community.
About 1,000 to 1,500 BJP and Bajrang Dal supporters fanned throughout Balaghat, bunching particularly around a bus stand and railway station and damaging at least three vehicles, including ones belonging to a senior police officer and an ex-Member of Parliament, Ashok Singh Saraswat. The mob attempted to set fire to buses from Maharashtra state transport corporation.
Since most of those attending the meeting were outsiders, the Bajrang Dal members descended on the railway station and bus stand and harassed passengers and broke property, damaging both buses and railway coaches, Singh said. If the extremists found a Bible in the luggage of people at the railway station and bus stand, they attacked them, he said.
“Christians who were returning from the meeting and attempting to get away from Balaghat as soon as possible were attacked and beaten with sticks and pelted with stones,” Singh said. “Women workers of the BJP attacked Christian women staying in Sindhi Dharamshala [hall], and some Christians who had come from Gondia and other places from nearby Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh had to flee for their lives, leaving behind their luggage in the Kamla Nehru hall and other places where they were put up.”
Pastor Kamlesh Nagpure said that he and his family were stuck in the stadium, unable to go to their home outside the city limits of Balaghat.
“People were driven to safety in tractors and private cars following the ruckus, and they were attacked even till early morning, 4 a.m.,” he said. “The attackers used large sticks to rough people up and indulged in brick throwing, which also damaged some vehicles. Some of us who could not get a safe ride outside town limits were forced to stay inside the stadium the whole night. Most of the crowd was composed of women and children.”
Christian leaders reportedly said the mob also damaged a Catholic church in Balaghat and attempted to attack other church buildings and houses belonging to Christian leaders. They threw fuel-bombs at the house of the Rev. Arvind Deep, where several participants had taken refuge that night.
At last the administration was forced to impose a curfew until April 17, even as the BJP declared a total shutdown of market and other activities on April 16 and 17 as part of their protest.
“Targeting participants of the meeting and beating and intimidating them continued till 10 a.m. on April 16,” Singh told Compass. “Many Christians have fled Balaghat out of fear and have gone to live with their relatives.”
Eight people who were arrested on April 15 were reportedly released the next morning.
Report from Compass Direct News
Eighteen Muslims arrested in the wake of Gojra violence under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), were released from their local district jail on Saturday, September 19, Pakistan English Daily “Dawn” has reported, reports Dan Wooding and Sheraz Khurram Khan, special to ASSIST News Service.
Gojra, a small town in Punjab province of Pakistan exploded into the international limelight when miscreants on August 1 set ablaze over 50 Christian houses that resulted in killings of seven Christians. Scores of Christians left their houses, fearing further trouble from extremists.
The newspaper said the Muslim men were booked under Section 7 of the ATA on the charges of attacking Christian community on July 29 and August 1 following an incident of alleged desecration of the Holy Quran in Chak (village) 95-JB, Adda Korian, and Christian Colony, Gojra.
They were declared innocent by a joint committee of Muslims and Christians formed to reconcile between both the groups, said the Dawn report.
The committee recommended to the police to delete the names of these 18 people from the Police First Information Report on which they were set free, it said.
Reacting to the release of the Muslim men, Mr. Joseph Francis, Director of the Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS), has alleged that the Chief Justice Lahore High Court, is “anti-Christian, biased and a fanatic.”
Francis alleged that the Chief Justice had granted bail to the Muslim men without serving notice on the lawyers of Catholic Church, therefore they could not appear in the court the day the accused were granted bails, he said.
He said CLAAS was going to protest against the decision by setting up a hunger strike camp outside Lahore Press Club.
When ANS asked him how Christians could have reservations on the release of the Muslim men when a committee comprising of Muslims and Christians declared them innocent, Mr. Joseph said he doubted the “credibility of the committee.” He went on to say that a Catholic priest of Gojra Shafique had given a pardon to the Muslim men without consulting with the victims.
“How could the Muslim men in question be granted bail when the findings of the Inquiry Commission led by Justice Iqbal Hameed-ur-Rehman have not come to the fore?,” he questioned.
Francis maintained the police in the wake of Gojra violence mentioned names of some 129 Christians in a cross version. Out of 129, he said, 100 Christians are unidentified where as 29 Christians have been named.
He also revealed that a Bishop of the Church of Pakistan, John Samuel and his son have also been named in the cross version, which means these people were not originally named in the FIR but police added their names later as accused.
The CLAAS director said the police arrested two Christian brothers named Naveed and Nouman and claimed to ANS that Nouman had opened fire on miscreants, which he said saved lives of so many Christians as it enabled them to flee the scene.
He said Nouman was in Karachi when the Gojra violence took place but the police have arrested him.
Francis said he lodged a petition against arrest of the two brothers in Lahore High court. Mr. Francis said that when the high court asked the police in a hearing on Friday, September 18, they said the pair was not in its custody rather they have been taken by the law enforcement agencies.
According to Mr. Francis, the court has ordered the Station House Officer, Rasool Ghulam, District Coordination Officer and District Police Officer to explain the court about Naveed and Nouman on October 1, 2009.
Asked to comment on the recent statements by Pakistani religious hardliners and conservative politicians opposing the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws, he said he was going to present a memorandum demanding the repeal of Pakistan blasphemy laws to the United Nations in Rawalpindi.
“The religious parties are making a political capital by reiterating their inflexible posture on repeal of the blasphemy laws,” he claimed.
Report from the Christian Telegraph
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