Murder of Governor in Pakistan Darkens ‘Blasphemy’ Case

Assassination called a blow to prospects of justice for Christian mother on death row.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 5 (CDN) — The case of Asia Noreen, the first Christian woman sentenced to death in Pakistan on blasphemy charges, suffered a major setback when her most vocal supporter, the governor of Punjab Province, was gunned down by one of his police bodyguards yesterday (Jan. 4) in Islamabad.

The lives of Noreen and Gov. Salman Taseer were at risk since the day he, his wife and daughter visited her in the Sheikhupura District Jail on Nov. 22, after news of her conviction appeared in the media.

Taseer had openly criticized the blasphemy statutes and vowed to try to repeal the “black laws” in parliament. He also promised Noreen (also called Asia Bibi) that he would recommend a presidential pardon for her.

The governor’s assurance and his support for Noreen gave new hope to the impoverished mother of two children and step-mother to three others – and drew violent condemnation from Islamist forces, sparking countrywide protests.

“The governor’s visit gave us hope that all was not lost,” Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministries Pakistan, which has pursued Noreen’s case from the onset, told Compass. “We believed that God had sent the governor to help us … his words of support boosted Noreen’s morale, and she was actually quite optimistic about the outcome of her appeal in the high court.”

He said the murder of Taseer in broad daylight had shocked all those opposing the blasphemy laws, and that “there is little hope of these laws ever being repealed.”

Johnson confirmed that Noreen’s life was at high risk ever since the governor had highlighted her case.

“The local Islamist forces believed that President [Asif Ali] Zardari would pardon Noreen on Taseer’s recommendation, and this was unacceptable to them,” said Johnson, confirming that intelligence agencies had determined that Islamists had plotted to kill Noreen inside jail to make an example of her. “Noreen was earlier allowed two hours in the morning and two in the evening to go outside her cell to relax. After the intelligence information, the jail authorities restricted her movement, and now she is kept in the cell at all times. A security guard has also been deployed with her.”

He added that news of the assassination of the governor would surely panic the Christian woman.

Johnson said Noreen’s appeal of her conviction had yet to be taken up for hearing by the Lahore High Court, but that the murder would definitely affect the course of justice. “The governor’s brutal murder has diminished our hopes for justice for Noreen,” he said.

Her family, he said, has been in hiding since Islamist parties started protests in favor of the blasphemy laws.

“Even I am keeping a low profile these days,” Johnson said.

Taseer and Noreen were declared “Wajibul Qatil” (liable to be killed) by radical Islamic clerics. A cleric in Peshawar and a local politician in Multan offered a combined sum of 50 million rupees (US$579,300) for anyone who killed Taseer and Noreen.

Protests, shut-down strikes and general uproar pressured Pakistan’s federal government to announce that the blasphemy laws would not be repealed.

Taseer, however, continued to publicly vent his opposition – even using Twitter – to the blasphemy laws, which effectively mandate death for anyone convicted of insulting Muhammad, the prophet of Islam. Although courts typically overturn convictions, and no executions have been carried out, rights activists say the laws are used to settle rivalries and persecute religious minorities.

On Friday (Dec. 31), Taseer had tweeted “I was under huge pressure 2 cow down b4 rightest pressure on blasphemy. Refused. Even if I’m the last man standing.”

The assassination is significant not simply because of the person targeted and the reason behind it, but because of the broader societal implications.

“[It points to] the presence of radical elements inside the Pakistani state apparatus,” said columnist Cyril Almeida.

He said that the fact that Taseer’s own bodyguard shot him is not just worrying because it indicates a failure of the vetting process but because it points to “the extent to which this poison has affected the Pakistani state. The investment in jihad has come home to roost.”

In the hours immediately following the killing, television anchors hosted several shows in which guests, while stopping short of openly supporting the murder of Taseer, did speak out in support of killing those deemed to have blasphemed. Some Pakistanis have reported that they received text messages on their mobile phones praising the assassination.

Pakistan Interior Minister Rehman Malik has said the guard, Malik Mumtaz Hussein Qadri, told police that he killed Taseer because of the governor’s opposition to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. Qadri had escorted the governor from Rawalpindi to Islamabad on Tuesday (Jan. 4).

A 26-year-old policeman from Barakhao on the outskirts of Islamabad, Qadri had reportedly transferred to the Elite Force after commando training in 2008. Thus far, he has not been identified as a member of any violent Muslim extremist groups but is considered devout in his faith.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Report from Compass Direct News

Rapes of Christian Girls in Pakistan Reflect Hidden Trend

Sexual assault by Muslim extremists is commonplace but rarely reported.

FAROOQABAD, Pakistan, August 16 (CDN) — The vulnerability of Christian girls to sexual assault in Pakistani society emerged again last month as a Muslim landowner allegedly targeted a 16-year-old and a gang of madrassa (Islamic school) students allegedly abused a 12-year-old in Punjab Province.

In Farooqabad, Shiekhupura district, three Muslim co-workers of a Christian man allegedly raped his 16-year-old daughter at gunpoint the night of July 21; the following evening in Gujar Khan, Rawalpindi district, more than a half dozen madrassa students decided to “teach these Christians a lesson” by allegedly gang-raping the 12-year-old girl.

The students at Jamia Islamia Madrassa had been harassing Christians in the villages around Gujar Khan, said the pastor of the church to which the girl’s family belongs, United Pentecostal Church.

“They openly announce that ‘the Christians are our enemies, we should not talk to them, eat with them or do business with them,’” Pastor Shakeel Javed told Compass.

The students often beat Christian children who come to play on the school grounds, telling them to convert or leave, he said, adding that on Sundays they throw stones at the church building.

A school teacher who said she was witness to the alleged rape told Compass that when she came across the madrassa students the evening of July 22, she overheard one saying, “We will teach these Christians a lesson they will never forget.”

“Three or four Christian girls were washing dishes near a pond,” Rana Aftab said. “These guys ran towards them, and the girls started running. One of them fell on the ground, and these madrassa students got hold of her and took her in the fields. I tried to stop them, but they were 15-16 in number.”

Seven or eight of them raped the girl, whose name is withheld, while the others looked on, Aftab said.

“She kept yelling for help, but no one heard her cries,” Aftab said.

They left the girl in the field, and some villages took her home to her father, Pervaiz Masih, Aftab said.

Masih was devastated, and the girl’s mother fainted when she saw her, Masih told Compass.

Masih and Aftab went to the police station to register a complaint, but the officer in charge refused to register it, Aftab said.

When Compass contacted officers at the police station, they initially refused to comment, but eventually one admitted that they are under pressure from Muslims leaders and extremists to refrain from filing a First Information Report (FIR) on the alleged crime.



In eastern Punjab Province’s Farooqabad, the Christian father of the allegedly raped 16-year-old girl said he was later kidnapped and tortured.

In his complaint to police, Ghafoor Masih of Kot Sandha village said he was working the fields when three men who work for his Muslim employer overpowered his daughter at home and dragged her into one of the rooms of the house at gunpoint.

His daughter, whose name is withheld, told police that the three men raped her while keeping her from screaming for help by threatening to shoot her in the forehead with a pistol. The family accused Rashid Ali, another Muslim identified only as Maan son of Muhammad Boota and an unidentified man who also worked for Masih’s employer, Hajji Rashid Jutt.

The next morning, July 22, Masih went to the Saddr police station in Farooqabad, but Station House Officer Inspector Nasseer Ahmad Khan refused to register a First Information Report (FIR), labor leaders said. Aslam Pervaiz Sahotra, chairman of the Bonded Labor Front, and Zia-ud-Din Khokhar, chairman of Equality for Minorities, later approached the Shiekhupura district police officer with Masih’s complaint, and on July 28 the official sent an application for a FIR to Saddr Police Station.

Under pressure from the superior officer, on July 29 Inspector Khan registered the FIR under for “gang-rape at gunpoint,” family members and clergy said.  

As Masih made his way home after the filing of the FIR on July 29, however, two other Muslims who work for his employer, Jutt, allegedly intercepted and kidnapped him, the family members said, and took him to Jutt’s farmhouse. There Jutt, the two men – Muhammad Irfan and Muhammad Usman – and another worker for Jutt, Fazal Karim, allegedly shackled and tortured Masih, leaving him in critical condition.

Inspector Khan told Compass that he has arrested Jutt, Irfan and Usman for kidnapping, as well as the suspect identified only as Maan for the alleged rape of Masih’s daughter.

Joseph Francis, national director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, condemned the alleged rape of the 16-year-old girl.

“Muslim landowners and their relatives see Christian girls or women as their chattel,” Francis said. “Such vicious incidents are not being stopped by the government, and day by day the rate of rapes of Christian girls is escalating instead of plunging.”

Sahotra and Khokhar added that many such cases go unreported as impoverished Christian families often do not have the resources to pursue justice.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Narrowly Escape Flying Bullets in Pakistan

Evangelistic team cheats death; separately, stray gunshot leads to false charges.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, July 15 (CDN) — Suspected Islamic extremists fired bullets into the car of a Christian evangelist with impunity last month, while in another Punjab Province town stray gunfire led to two Christians being falsely accused of murder.

Following a youth revival in Essa Nagri, near Faisalabad, the Rev. Kamran Pervaiz, a guest speaker from Rawalpindi, was in the passenger seat of a Toyota Corolla returning to Faisalabad with his team on June 25 when 12 armed men tried to stop their car, the pastor said.

Pastor Naeem Joseph, an organizer of the revival, was leading the ministry team by motorbike, and he led them past the armed men as they reached the Narawala Road bypass at about 1:15 a.m.

“I didn’t stop,” Pastor Joseph told Compass. “A gunshot was fired at me, but it missed, and instead of going straight I turned right towards the Sudhar bypass and took the motorbike into the fields.”

Pervaiz Sohtra was driving the car.

“Rev. Kamran asked me to increase the speed,” Sohtra said. “The armed men shouted to stop and directly fired at the car. I saw from the rearview mirror that they were coming after us, and I told everyone to stay down.”

The rear window suddenly broke to pieces as bullets pierced the car.

“Pervaiz [Sohtra] turned off the lights and took the car into the fields and turned off the engine,” Kamran Pervaiz said. “The attackers drove by, near the road, without noticing the fields. No one was injured. We were all safe.”

Pervaiz said he was certain that they were targeted because of their involvement in the Christian revival meeting; response to Pervaiz’s preaching jumped when a crippled man was healed after the evangelist prayed for him at the event. Muslim groups had warned the Christians to abort the meeting after banners and posters were displayed across Essa Nagri.

“A local Muslim group tore the banners and threatened us, telling us not to organize the meeting or else we would face dire consequences,” said Salman John, one of the organizers.

A police patrol responded to the ministry team’s emergency number phone call, reaching them in the field shortly before 2 a.m. and escorting Pervaiz and the others in their bullet-damaged car to Model Town, Faisalabad.

Pastor Joseph filed an application for a First Information Report (FIR) at Ghulam Muhammad Abad police station in Faisalabad. Acting Superintendent Shabir Muhammad took the application but declined to register an FIR due to pressure from local Muslim groups, he said.

“I am trying to register the FIR, but the things are out of my control at higher levels,” Muhammad told Compass.


False Arrest

In Gujrat, by contrast, police soon arrested two young Christian men after shots fired into the air by a drunken man killed a neighbor.

Cousins Saleem Masih, 22, and John Masih, 23, were falsely accused of robbery as well as murder, a later police investigation found, and they were released. Both worked at the farm of Chaudhry Ashraf Gondal, who became inebriated along with friend Chaudhry Farhan on June 18, according to Riaz Masih, father of Saleem Masih.

“They were feasting and then got drunk and started firing gunshots into the air for fun, and one of the bullets hit a passer-by near their home, and he died on the spot,” Riaz Masih said.

Yousaf Masih, father of John Masih, told Compass that when police arrived, Ashraf Gondal “gave them some money and asked them to take care of the matter.”

On June 22, police went to Yousaf Masih’s house asking for Saleem and John Masih. When Yousaf Masih said they were at work and asked if everything was alright, the inspector told him that the two young men had robbed and murdered shopkeeper Malik Sajid on June 18 at about 11:30 p.m.

“My son and Saleem came home around 6 p.m. and they didn’t go out after that,” Yousaf Masih told the officers. “On June 18 they were at home – they didn’t go out, so how could they murder Sajid?”

Police went to Ashraf Gondal’s farm and arrested the two young Christians. When police told Ashraf Gondal that they had robbed and murdered Sajid, he replied that they were capable of such a crime as they often asked him for advances on their pay and “they even sell alcohol.” Alcohol is illegal for Muslims in Pakistan and can be sold only by non-Muslims with a license.

Riaz Masih said he and Yousaf Masih rushed to Ashraf Gondal for help, but that he spoke harshly to them, saying, “Your sons have robbed and murdered an innocent person, and they even sell alcohol. Why should I help criminals, and especially Christian criminals?”

The two fathers went to the police station, where the Station House Officer (SHO) refused to allow them to meet with their sons. They went to Pastor Zaheer Latif.

“I’ve known Saleem and John since they were small kids, and they could never rob or murder anyone,” Pastor Latif told Compass. “They were targeted because they are Christians. The SHO and Ashraf knew that these boys would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

The pastor referred the fathers to the senior superintendent of police operations officer Raon Irfan, who undertook an investigation. When he spoke with Ashraf Gondal, Irfan said, the landowner denied that Farhan had visited him on June 18.

“I have read the inquiry report by the SHO,” Irfan told Compass. “I am aware of the fact that this SHO is a corrupt person, and it is clearly a false report.”

Irfan said that, after talking with villagers, he concluded that Farhan was with Ashraf Gondal in Gujrat on June 18, and that they shot into the air for fun and one of the bullets killed Sajid.

“Ashraf bribed the SHO to arrest someone else and file charges of robbery and murder,” Irfan said. “Ashraf is an influential person, and he told the SHO to file the case against Saleem and John, as they are Christians and would not be able to prove themselves innocent.”

Advocacy group Peace Pakistan filed an appeal of the false charges with the Gujrat Session Court on June 25. In light of Irfan’s report, Session Judge Muhammad Gulfam Malik on June 27 released Saleem Masih and John Masih and suspended the SHO for corruption and filing a false case.

No action, however, was taken against Ashraf Gondal or Farhan. Police have not arrested either of them.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslims in Pakistan Kidnap, Rape Christian Girl

Five men threatened to kill her unless her father allowed one to marry her.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, June 16 (CDN) — Five Muslims here kidnapped and raped a Christian girl after threatening to kill her unless her father allowed one of them to marry her.

Lazarus Masih said one of his three daughters, 14, was kidnapped on May 29 by five men identified only as Guddu, Kamran, Waqas, Adil and Ali.

Police recovered her on June 6 in a raid on the home where she was being held, though the suspects escaped.

“They threatened that if I don’t get her married to Guddu, they would kill her,” Masih said. “One of them said, ‘We attended an Islamic religious convention, and the speaker said if you marry a non-Muslim or rape a non-Muslim girl, you will get 70 virgins in heaven.”

He said that when he and his wife returned from work at around 11 a.m. on May 29, their 14-year-old daughter was not at home; his other daughters had been at school and said they did not know where she had gone.

During the family’s search for her, they heard from Masih’s brother-in-law, Yousaf Masih, that he had seen five Muslim men follow her earlier that morning.

“In the morning around 7:30 a.m., I saw that [name withheld] and another girl were sitting in a rickshaw and five Muslim guys – Guddu, Kamran, Waqas, Adil and Ali – followed the rickshaw,” Yousaf Masih told the girl’s father.

Family members said the suspects took her to a house near Islamabad, where they gave her a drug that rendered her unconscious, and raped her. A medical report confirmed that she was given drugs and raped.

Lazarus Masih, who lives with his daughters and wife in Mohalla Raja Sultan, Rawalpindi, filed a First Information Report at the Waris Khan police station on June 1 against all five men. He said Guddu, Kamran and Waqas sell and use drugs.

He also contacted advocacy organization Ephlal Ministry, which along with representatives of Life for All and Peace Pakistan met with police chief Mazhar Hussain Minhas and demanded immediate action for the recovery of the girl.

“This is a very sad incident, and we will do whatever we can to recover the girl,” Hussain Minhas told them.

Devastated family members said the girl remained frightened and was not speaking to anyone.

“It is such a shame that the religious leaders teach inhuman acts,” said the Rev. John Gill of Shamsabad Catholic Church. “This incident has ruined the life of an innocent child.”

The family formerly belonged to the Catholic parish but now affiliates with a Protestant church, New Life Ministry in Rawalpindi.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Woman Kidnapped in Pakistan Escapes

Impoverished father had received ultimatum from employer who loaned him money.

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan, May 31 (CDN) — A Christian woman who was kidnapped, forced to marry a Muslim farmer and told to convert to Islam amid a dispute over a loan said today she has returned home after weeks of  “captivity and torture.”

Sania James, 33, was kidnapped April 5 by armed men who stormed her parent’s house in the small town of Rawat, just outside Rawalpindi, neighbors confirmed to Compass. The gunmen allegedly told her father that he would see his daughter again only if he paid off a loan of 250,000 rupees (US$2,930) plus 30 percent interest – a rate much higher than previously agreed upon.

James said the armed men took her to farmer Mohammad Shahbaz Ali and forced her to marry him.

“I have been tortured, forced to convert and forcefully married,” said James, who escaped earlier this month.

She refused to convert to Islam and was continuously tortured, James said without elaborating.

“One night I managed to escape and returned home,” she said. “I have contacted Christian rights groups to help me.”

Shahbaz Ali reacted angrily when asked about the alleged incidents.

“I refuse to say anything,” he told Compass.

Neighbors who said they watched the kidnapping said they were unable to intervene.

“We have been warned by Shahbaz Ali that if any one tries to help these Christians, they will have to face dire consequences,” said one of the neighbors, Mohammad Hamza. “Everyone is scared.”

The kidnapping came five years after the woman’s father, James Ayub, allegedly took the loan from Shahbaz Ali, his long-time employer, to pay for his oldest daughter’s wedding.

Ayub, who worked at Shahbaz Ali’s farm for two decades, was initially told that the interest rate on the loan would be 15 percent, but the rate was later doubled, family members said. Shahbaz Ali allegedly told Ayub in February that his family would be attacked unless he paid off the loan within two months.

In a bid to raise the money, Sania James said she had begun to work on the farm along with her elderly, impoverished father. James said that her father was “thrown out of the farm,” and that she was subsequently kidnapped.

Local Pastor Faraz Samson, who tried to mediate in the conflict, said he went to Shahbaz Ali to end “the injustice, but he didn’t listen.”

Police officials reportedly said they were unable to halt the alleged kidnapping, saying Shahbaz Ali was a very influential man.

“I am shocked that a daughter of a poor man has been kidnapped, and the law can’t do anything,” Pastor Samson said.

The kidnapping was not an isolated incident, according to rights activists. They have expressed concerns that Christian women and girls have been kidnapped across Pakistan, a predominantly Muslim nation, often amid disputes over land and money.

Advocacy organizations Life for All and Peace Pakistan have condemned the incident.

Report from Compass Direct News

False Charges Filed against 47 Christians in Pakistan

Police try to extract bribe after attacking home; in Rawalpindi, militants attack chapel.

VEHARI, Pakistan, April 8 (CDN) — Police here filed false charges of alcohol possession against 47 Christians, including women and children, on March 28 in an attempt to intimidate and bribe them, Christian leaders said.

Police broke into and ransacked the home of Shaukat Masih at 10:15 p.m. on Palm Sunday, manhandled his wife Parveen Bibi, and threatened to charge them and 45 other area Christians with alcohol possession if they did not pay a bribe, said attorney Albert Patras. The Christians refused.

Those charged include two children and eight women. Patras said that three of the 37 Christian men, Shaukat Masih, Moula Masih and Shanni Masih, secured pre-arrest bail and thus averted detainment by Dane Wall police in Vehari, in Punjab Province. None of the others named in the First Information Report is being held either.

“Police are not interested in their arrest, instead they were trying to extort some money from the destitute Christians,” Patras said. “Police thought that Christians, being a soft target, would readily be bribed to save their families, particularly their girls and women.”  

Non-Muslims with a permit are allowed to possess and drink alcohol in Pakistan, while alcohol is forbidden to Muslims in Pakistan. Shaukat Masih has a government permit to keep and drink alcohol, Patras said, thus making the possession charge baseless.

“No longer using just ‘blasphemy’ laws, police and fanatical Muslims have begun to use alcohol laws, Section 3/4 of the Pakistan Penal Code, to persecute the destitute Christians of Pakistan,” Patras said. “Only Christians in Pakistan are allowed to keep and drink alcohol, so Pakistani police can apprehend any Christian and then level section 3/4 of PPC against him or her.”

Patras, head of the Society for Empowerment of the People, told Compass that Sub-Inspector Irshaad-ur-Rehman of the Dane Wall police station, along with two other policemen illegally ransacked the house of Shaukat Masih and Sadiq Masih and threatened to file alcohol charges against them if they refused to pay the bribe.

Besides the alcohol accusations, police also filed charges against the Christians for interfering with police, attacking in the form of a mob, theft, confronting police and engaging in terrorist activities, Patras said.

Patras said that Rehman filed the false charges against the Christians only to protect himself and his cohorts against accusations over their attack on the household. Rehman was not immediately available for comment.

Khalid Gill, head of Lahore zone of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and chief organizer of the Christian Liberation Front of Punjab Province, said that police violated the trust of their office.

“Keeping alcohol and drinking is taboo in Islam,” Gill said, “but Christians are issued permits to keep and drink alcohol. Now besides the discriminatory blasphemy laws of Sections 295-A, 295-B and 295-C of the penal code, fanatical Muslims and police have found this new way to harass and extort money from innocent, impoverished Christian families.”

The Rt. Rev. Bishop Naeem Essa condemned the police action, concurring with the other Christian leaders that Muslim extremists and police accustomed to using Pakistan’s blasphemy laws to unjustly jail Christians have found a new means of antagonism.

“Now they have grabbed a new weapon in Section 3/4 of the penal code to financially, socially and legally terrorize the weak Christians of Pakistan,” Essa said.

Armed Attack on Chapel

In another Easter week incident, in Rawalpindi law enforcement agents secured the liberty of Christians held hostage by several armed Muslim militants, including at least five burqa-clad women, who attacked a church building after a Good Friday (April 2) service.

APMA’s Gill said the assailants armed with automatic rifles and pistols desecrated Gordon College Chapel of Robinson Community Development Ministries (RCDM) Church and ripped apart books, including the Bible. The assailants also entered nearby residences and reprimanded adults and children for their faith in Christ, besides looting many of the homes, Gill said.

Eyewitnesses said that while two Christians, Shaban Gill and Imran Nazir, were scaling the wall of their property to enter their home, the Muslim militants opened fire on them. Gill managed to escape but Nazir was hit, and the militants held his wife and two daughters, one 4 years old and the other 18 months, at gunpoint.

A heavy contingent of police from City Police Station Raja Bazaar arrived at the scene, and with the help of local Christians broke down doors and gates to make their way into the property and its adjoining residential area. Police secured the liberty of all three Christian hostages and arrested at least 10 suspects. 

Nine of the suspects have been identified as Mushtaq Ahmed, Amjad Zaman Cheema, Dildar Hussein, Muhammad Anwer and Saqib Ali, along with the burqa-clad Nusrat Bibi, Shahnaz Bibi, Irum Bibi and Fatima Bibi.

Police were initially reluctant to file charges against the arrested Muslims but eventually did so under the pressure from Christian rights activists Robinson Asghar, head of RCDM. 

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Christian on Run from Taliban Death Threat

Islamic extremist sermonizing leads to altercation at barbershop in South Waziristan.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 27 (CDN) — A young Christian man is in hiding in Pakistan from Taliban militants who seek to kill him for “blasphemy” because he defended his faith.

In February Jehanzaib Asher, 22, was working in a barbershop his family jointly owns with his cousin in Wana, South Waziristan – a Taliban stronghold in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan’s northwest – when the Islamic militants showed up to try to convert him to Islam.

It was not the first time the Taliban’s Noor Hassan had delivered strident sermons to him and his relatives, and this time Asher decided not to listen silently. He defended Christianity by citing verses from the Bible, and Hassan and another Islamic militant viciously beat him – breaking his left leg and some ribs and leaving his left hand non-functional.

He told Compass that he only defended Christianity and did not comment on Islam.

“One can bear the death of one’s father or mother, but can we keep listening to insults of our religion?” Asher said.

Nearby Muslims helped him and two cousins ward off the attack. Soon the Taliban militants began spreading the word to local residents that Asher and his cousin Christopher Masih had blasphemed Muhammad, the prophet of Islam.

Before the Pakistani military’s recent offensive against the Taliban stronghold in South Waziristan, Asher said, his picture was posted at check-points in an attempt to help the Taliban and other Islamists identify and kill him.

Asher’s cousin, Zaib Masih, managed to get Asher and Christopher Masih (Zaib Masih’s brother) into a vehicle, and they fled the market area where their two barbershops are located. As barbers they were targeted for the Islamic sermonizing and attack due to the Taliban’s opposition to shaving of beards, he said.

Zaib Masih told Compass that Christopher Masih was also injured in the attack, though not as seriously as Asher. They took Asher to a military hospital, safe from the Taliban. But when military doctors asked how Asher became so badly injured, they mentioned only a “family fight” so as not to draw the ire of any Muslim soldiers who might attack them for the blasphemy allegations.

For months Asher remained at home; even neighbors were unaware of the fact that he was still in Wana, Zaib Masih said.

“We live in the army compound, but we still feared that the Taliban might tip off some one in the compound, and we might be attacked on the allegations of blasphemy,” he said.

He said that they had been born and brought up in Wana and knew many Taliban members, and with their help he approach a grand mufti to try to obtain a decree that Asher was innocent.

“I took along a lamb with me to present to the mufti in order to appease his anger, but he listened to no word and wanted to know Asher’s whereabouts,” Zaib Masih added.

Asher still walked with a limp, and the Taliban were determined to kill him, Zaib Masih said. His and Asher’s families own a house in Sialkot, and Zaib Masih said he planned to sneak him there.

Asher said the grand mufti was not present when the Taliban initially sought to kill him, and that therefore no fatwa was issued ordering his death.

“If that had happened, then I would have been killed for sure,” he said. “The Taliban were even killing the army personnel, so what capacity did we have to defend ourselves?”

Earlier this month, Asher told Compass, he disguised himself as a Muslim with a long beard and left Wana.

Initially he fled to Sialkot, Punjab Province. Soon he learned that in Wana news of his departure had spread, and that there was a rumor that three Taliban had been dispatched to Sialkot to hunt him down. Crestfallen, he fled to another, undisclosed city.

Asher told Compass that he had recovered from all injuries except for his knee, which remained swollen. He said he was receiving treatment for it at a hospital.

“Only God could have saved me from this calamity,” he said. “Otherwise, no one could save me from their hands.”

The cousins’ barbershops in Wana have been closed after the encounter with the Taliban. Zaib Masih said that two relatives have government jobs as janitors, and the two families are surviving on their meager salaries.

Since the closing of their barbershops, Zaib Masih said, the families have living hand-to-mouth – barely able to have two meals a day.

South Waziristan is the headquarters of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Taliban umbrella group fighting the government, and is a hub of Arab and Uzbek Islamic militants. In mid-October the Pakistani Army launched an offensive after the Taliban managed to take the army’s general headquarters in Rawalpindi.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Some 59 Christians are released from jails in Pakistan

On Friday, November 13, 2009, the sun came up with new hopes in the lives of 59 Christians in Pakistan after the Pakistani-based Christian organization, “Life for All,” had made a determined effort to give these people their lives back, reports Xavier Patras William, special to ASSIST News Service.

The imprisoned Christians, who have been in various jails in Pakistan, got the welcome news of their freedom after hard work made by Mr. Rizwan Paul, President “Life for All,” who had presented a petition to Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, President of Pakistan, for the pardon of these Christians who he stated had been “falsely accused of minor crimes.”

The President reviewed the petition and approved the release of the prisoners who had been accused of minor crimes, and he vowed to review the release of other prisoners after reviewing the nature of their crimes.

The prisoners that were freed had been incarcerated in Adyala Jail, Rawalpindi; Kot Lakhpat Jail, Lahore; Sialkot Jail, Sialkot; as well as Peshawar Jail and the Karachi Jail.

Now they are free, and can breathe and move freely.

Extremely emotional scenes were seen outside the jails when the prisoners were released. Family members were present to greet their loved ones and they thanked “Life for All” for their efforts.

Representatives from “Life for All” were present at the respective jails to receive the released. They took the record of the released and then handed over them over to their families.

However, there are still more than 2,500 Christians in jails all over Pakistan who cannot afford the legal assistance for their release. There are many church-based and Christian/Muslim civil society organizations who claim to provide legal aid assistance to Christians and other poor people, but the truth is that the poor in Pakistan are implicated in false cases and end up in jail for years.

“Life for All” did not get any local / foreign aid for the release of these Christians.

Rizwan stressed that the Christian organizations “need to work together for the development of the community” in Pakistan.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Pakistan court releases 18 Muslims held for Gojra violence

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 


Bail denied to Christian activist for his own safety; judge also under fire.

ISTANBUL, May 6 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani Christian charged with abetting blasphemy against Islam was denied bail for his own safety last week after an Islamist lawyer allegedly threatened his life in a court hearing.

Hector Aleem, 51, remains in Adiyala Jail in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan’s capital of Islamabad. Judge Mustafa Tanveer dismissed his bail application at a court session on Thursday (April 30).

“If the judge does not punish Aleem according to the law, then [we] will kill him ourselves,” said Tariq Dhamal, an attorney for the unnamed complainant, according to a report by the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Police arrested Aleem last November when a Muslim scholar received a text message insulting the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Authorities charged Aleem with blasphemy and abetting blasphemy, sections 295(c) and 109(bb) respectively of the Pakistani criminal code.

Court evidence shows the text message came from an unlisted phone number, not Aleem’s. At an April 25 hearing, Investigating Officer Zafer Ikbal said he had concluded that evidence proved Aleem’s innocence. Ikbal’s investigation, along with a February judicial decision, resulted in charges of blaspheming Islam being dropped. The charge of abetting blasphemy still stands.

Nevertheless, at the April 25 hearing prosecuting attorneys asserted that Aleem was guilty of blasphemy on grounds that “he is a Christian and can make blasphemous comments about the prophet Muhammad,” according to Katherine Sapna, a field officer for CLAAS.

Aleem’s lawyer, Malik Tafik, said he has filed for upcoming hearings to be closed to the public for fear that Muslim fanatics could try to kill his Christian client. Tafik will present another bail application in the high court of Islamabad on May 14.

Tafik, a Muslim, has come under pressure from the Rawalpindi Bar for taking on the case of a Christian accused of blasphemy. The bar has filed an application against him for handling the case.

Dhamal, the lawyer who allegedly made the death threat against Aleem, is a member of Sunni Tehreek, an Islamist political movement involved in violent sectarian clashes in the last decade.

In the April 25 hearing, five lawyers and 180 Islamist protestors gathered around the courthouse. Tafik said he believes the crowds hoped to intimidate the judge into declaring Aleem guilty. More than 100 protestors have congregated at previous hearings, shouting that Aleem’s life would not be spared and he should be handed over to the police.

Tafik said the judge is afraid to rule in favor of Aleem for fear of his life from Rawalpindi Islamists.

“The judge is under pressure and not deciding the case based on merits,” Tafik said. “He is ready to hear on merits, but the lawyers are just [acting] on the basis of Islamization.”

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under heavy fire from international rights groups. Any private citizen can file blasphemy charges, and they have been used in petty disputes as a means of retaliation as they can destroy reputation, livelihood and possibly lead to the death penalty in the conservative Islamic country.

Before his arrest, Aleem led human rights campaigns on behalf of Christians, particularly a land dispute between a congregation and the Rawalpindi Water and Sanitation Agency, which wanted to demolish their church building.

More Muslims than Christians are charged with blasphemy in Pakistan. In 2008 there were 13 cases registered against Muslims in Punjab province, where Aleem resides, and only six against Christians.

Boy Dies

Insulting Islam is a dangerous activity in the conservative nation of 170 million, but with the spread of the Taliban, non-Muslims fear their very existence will make them a target to fundamentalists.

On April 22 Christians in Taiser town, near Karachi, noticed on the walls of their church graffiti that read, “Long Live the Taliban” and calls for Christians to either convert to Islam or pay the jizye, a poll tax under sharia (Islamic law) paid by non-Muslims for protection if they decline to convert.

Armed men arrived on the scene and opened fire on Christians who were erasing the graffiti, injuring five. An 11-year-old boy shot in the attack, Irfan Masih, has reportedly since died from his injuries (see “Taliban-Inspired Attacks Hit Christians,” April 27).

Security forces fear that sectarian violence could erupt in the port city of Karachi. They have banned public gatherings and processions, according to Release International aid agency.

Report from Compass Direct News