PAKISTAN: CHRISTIANS ACQUITTED IN ‘BLASPHEMY’ CASE


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

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PAKISTAN: CHRISTIAN AT CHURCH OF BELEAGUERED PASTOR ARRESTED


Young parishioner illegally detained, beaten with wooden rods.

ISTANBUL, October 17 (Compass Direct News) – In ongoing intimidation of a Pakistani pastor working in the outskirts of Lahore, police last week arrested and beat a young parishioner who was visiting his home to receive prayer.

Police on Oct. 9 arrested Javed Masih, a 22-year-old delivery driver and prominent member of pastor Christopher Manzer’s congregation, as he was leaving Manzer’s house. The pastor had already fled after receiving a telephone call warning him of imminent police arrival.

Police attacked Manzer five times between April and July, and the pastor of the Pentecostal Church of Jesus Disciples has recently received death threats.

As Masih was leaving Manzer’s home, police approached him, asked if he was Pastor Christopher and arrested him. Manzer searched for Masih in local police stations without success.

On Sunday (Oct. 12) Masih’s family learned that he had been taken to the Crime Investigation Agency (CIA) police station in Ichhra, central Lahore. Authorities held Masih there for three days, kept in a small room with 32 other men and beaten, before allowing him to make a phone call.

“They beat me with wooden rods,” Masih told Compass through a translator.

Police held Masih until 11 p.m. Tuesday (Oct. 14). According to human rights group Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP) staff, Masih was held illegally and without any official record. He was released after his family and Manzer paid a bribe of 15,000 rupees (US$185). Masih plans to post pre-arrest bail, in the hopes that this will avert future arrests.

The pastor and staff at SLMP believe the man instigating the attacks is Mohammad Nawaz, who opened a court case against Manzer, Masih and seven others, accusing them of kidnapping his wife, Sana Bibi.

Bibi and Nawaz converted to Islam and eloped last year believing Islam could shield and support their union, as their families did not approve of their marriage. Sources said, however, that Bibi filed for divorce and returned to her family, after Nawaz’s ties with devout Muslims led to disagreements.

Manzer counseled Bibi after she decided to return to her family and Christianity, and according to sources Nawaz blames him for the divorce in March and a botched abortion that led to her death in May. Manzer has denied all of the accusations.

 

Continued Defamation

There are numerous charges pending against Manzer and members of his congregation based on accusations allegedly fabricated and filed by Nawaz’s friends.

Should these “applications” become official First Information Reports, they would each require pre-arrest bail payments from those indicted.

Both Manzer and Shahzad Kamran of the SLMP have expressed concerns of police corruption, maintaining police make arrests in order to collect release bribes. According to Peter Jacob, a lawyer with the National Commission for Justice and Peace, these issues are surmountable.

“There is a problem of corruption and influence on police, a degree of malpractice,” said Jacob. “On the whole if the allegations are false… there is the possibility of redress if corruption has taken place.”

Kamran told Compass he believes Manzer would benefit from appearing before the Deputy Inspector General (DIG), who has authority over all local police stations, to explain to him the entire episode.

“He could then take action and issue a summary report to all the police stations informing them the pastor is innocent, so all the applications could be cancelled,” said Kamran.

Kamran and Manzer said they plan to bring their case to the DIG within the next week.

Despite these difficulties, Manzer remains hopeful, believing that the case will be settled in his favor. The court has now authenticated the Bibi-Nawaz divorce documents to be used as evidence that Bibi was not kidnapped, according to the SLMP. This is a crucial step in the defense of Manzer, Masih and the seven others.  

Report from Compass Direct News

PAKISTAN: PASTOR SUFFERS POLICE ATTACKS, DEATH THREATS


Officers from different police stations beat him; murder suspect threatens to kill him.

ISTANBUL, October 9 (Compass Direct News) – A Pakistani pastor and his family in Punjab province have been living in fear for months after death threats from a murder suspect and repeated attacks on their house by police squads.

Pastor Christopher Manzer, 55, of Jhugian Baja Singh, told Compass by telephone that a Muslim man blames him for the loss of his wife and unborn baby and has enlisted extremist Muslim groups to mount a wave of attacks on him.

“I’m a Christian pastor, and in Pakistan you know it is a trend to hurt the Christians,” said Manzer, pastor of Pentecostal Church of Jesus Disciples, by telephone from Jhugian Baja Singh, 26 kilometers (16 miles) southwest of Lahore. “Most Christians are suffering very much.”

Mohammad Nawaz considers the pastor responsible for his divorce and the subsequent deaths of his ex-wife and unborn baby following an abortion. Nawaz’s uncle, a man identified only as Makha whom Nishter Colony police are seeking in connection with the murders of two Christian men in the past three months, has called the pastor twice telling him to leave town or die.

Manzer said he received the first death threat from Makha on Sept. 21, and then again on Saturday (Oct. 4) at 7 p.m.

“Be careful, I’m going to kill you – you have only a few days left in the world … your days are numbered,” Makha told Manzer on the phone last month.

“He is still receiving death threats,” said Shahzad Kamran of Sharing Life Ministry Pakistan (SLMP). “Makha is giving life threats to Pastor Christopher and telling him to leave the area and go to another place, otherwise they we will kill him and his family. They are afraid.”

 

Seeds of Grudge

Nawaz and the daughter of a member of Manzer’s church converted to Islam in order to elope, hoping that Islamic law would shield them from their families, who were opposed to their marriage.

Convinced that his daughter, Sana Bibi, had been kidnapped, Anwer Masih sought help from Manzer and others to get her back. Soon after Nawaz and Bibi were married, Nawaz became increasingly Islamic in his views, prompting her to seek help from her family to find a way out of the marriage.

Manzer stepped in to help reconcile Masih to his daughter, forgive her and take her back. On July 16, 2007 she filed for divorce, which was approved on March 28. In January, Nawaz had opened a dispute case against Manzer and Masih. A Pakistani court dismissed the case.

Bibi returned to her Christian faith and practices with the encouragement of Manzer. On April 7, however, members of the Liberty police station in Lahore broke into Manzer’s house, kicked him and beat him with sticks for an hour, verbally harassing him and his wife as well as their four children, ages 8 to 21.

Manzer was able to identify the police station because of the van that officers drove and parked near his house. The officers handcuffed him and took him to his church, where believers were gathered for a prayer meeting, and continued to beat him.

This was the first of five beatings and arrests by officers of police stations from other townships around Lahore. Each time friends came to Manzer’s rescue with a bribe, police relented and claimed to have caught the wrong man. The pastor said that paying police to keep them from beating him has exhausted his and his parishioners’ finances.

He said the beatings, which occurred twice in the middle of the night at his home, twice at the church and once at the police station, took place between April 7 and July 5. On two occasions Manzer was able to identify the responsible police station as Model Town Lahore.

The police station of his area, Manga Mandi, supports the pastor but cannot take action against other police stations, a station officer reportedly told the pastor.

On Aug. 26, Nawaz opened a second court case in a First Incident Report (FIR) at Manga Mandi police station against Manzer, Masih and seven other individuals, accusing them of forcibly entering his house in January, physically attacking him and his family and kidnapping Bibi. He further claimed that they threatened to kill him and stole 10,000 rupees (US$125) and gold objects.

“It is a fabricated story,” said Kamran of the SLMP.

Masih told SLMP staff, “Nawaz has relations with some Muslims who support him; he already has implicated us in a false case of quarrel … Now he again implicated us in a murder case of my daughter.”

In May, about five months after Bibi left Nawaz, she was admitted into the hospital with a high fever. She was treated by a midwife but died on May 27. SLMP staff confirmed that she had been pregnant and had had an abortion. According to her medical report, she died due to septic shock.

Manzer said Nawaz enlisted the help of extremist Muslims and his uncle out of anger over his ordeal and because Manzer was acquitted in the first court case against him in January.

“When Muslim groups saw the local police’s good behavior toward me, they approached Liberty and Model Town Police Stations in Lahore to take action against me,” he told the SLMP. “Police from both stations raided my house unlawfully.”

The pastor bears marks of the torture he underwent, while both his wife and eldest daughter have undergone psychological treatment after the attacks on Manzer in their home.

The first hearing in the case opened against Manzer, Masih and the other community members is scheduled for Oct. 19. Manzer said his faith has imbued him with a deep sense of charity toward Nawaz.

“We are praying for protection from God, and that God blesses Nawaz, because I am thinking of him,” said Manzer. “I don’t want to do anything to Nawaz, because I love him.”

Report from Compass Direct News