Muslim who converted, married Christian woman opposed Joseph Francis’ efforts.
LOS ANGELES, July 23 (Compass Direct News) – Pakistani minority rights defender Joseph Francis has been unjustly jailed by Islamists and others who oppose his work on behalf of Christians, according to the legal aid organization Francis directs.
An Islamist in Punjab Province who said he had converted to Christianity subsequently converted a young woman to Islam and married her, setting into motion a series of spurious charges when her parents brought her to Francis for counsel, according to the Lahore-based Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS). Angered when her family brought her to Francis hoping he would counsel her away from Islam, Mehboob Basharat then arranged for baseless charges to be filed against Francis, director of CLAAS, for allegedly detaining her and setting her on fire, CLAAS officials said in a statement.
Francis was jailed on July 12 after Basharat filed specious charges against him for forging documents and concealing his travel out of the country while on bail. Those charges arose out of the previous case, in which Basharat arranged for the woman he converted to Islam to charge the CLAAS director and others with forcibly detaining and assaulting her in 2006 – even though she previously had told police she suffered no ill treatment at the CLAAS offices.
“His only crime was to help suffering parents of a young Christian girl who was taken away from her family,” according to the CLAAS statement.
Francis’ predicament began when Basharat went to Bishop Samuel Azariah of Raiwind diocese in 2006 and told him that he, his wife and two children had converted from Islam to Christianity. Since his conversion, he told Bishop Azariah, his Muslim family and friends had ostracized him, and he pleaded with the clergyman to employ him. Bishop Azariah gave him a job in the diocese and provided a living space for him on the church premises, according to CLAAS.
Though he never attended church services, Basharat started socializing with Christian families of the congregation and showed excessive interest in their daughters, according to CLAAS. Pastor Emmanuel Khokhar took note and gave Basharat a warning, according to CLAAS.
Basharat became close with Roma Masih, one of six daughters in a family at the congregation, and on Sept. 26, 2006 he took her to a Muslim education center called Jamia Naeemia Lahore, where she embraced Islam and took on the name Aisha; he later eloped with her, and on Nov. 26, 2006 they married under Islamic rites, according to CLAAS.
When her family found out, they went to Bishop Azariah, who referred them to CLAAS for help. Roma/Aisha’s parents, Khursheed Masih and Shamim Masih, asked Francis to talk with their daughter. Basharat, meantime, returned to Raiwind (25 kilometers from Lahore) to collect his first wife and children, at one point threatening Bishop Azariah when the clergyman tried to talk to him. On Dec. 23, 2006 Basharat allowed Roma/Aisha to go to her parents’ house. They immediately brought her to CLAAS offices, insisting that Francis keep her in the organization’s second-floor shelter for abused women.
“They said that if she stayed away from Basharat, maybe she will change her mind and come back to her family,” according to the CLAAS statement.
Roma/Aisha, some of her sisters and their mother stayed overnight at the shelter, and the convert told Francis that she was now a Muslim and did not wish to associate with “infidels.” Francis told Roma/Aisha’s parents that she now considered herself a Muslim and urged them not to insist on their daughter remaining with them, according to CLAAS.
Upon learning that the Masihs had taken their daughter to CLAAS offices, Basharat on Dec. 23, 2006 complained to police in Lahore that the Christian parents of his wife were detaining her. The next day, police summoned Francis. When he and Roma/Aisha arrived at the station that evening, Basharat and a crowd of 40-45 mullahs (Muslim clergy) were waiting for them.
Nevertheless, Roma/Aisha signed a statement at the police station saying that she had not been held hostage or detained against her will, that she went to CLAAS offices of her own free will and that no one misbehaved or ill-treated her there, according to CLAAS. She left with Basharat.
On Feb. 18, 2007, Basharat, Roma/Aisha and attorney Raja Nathaniel, a church-going attorney at odds with the local Christian community, held a press conference in which Basharat accused Bishop Azariah and Francis of abducting his new wife and forcing her to reconvert back to Christianity. Nathaniel, according to CLAAS, at times “has converted to Islam to marry young girls” and has several cases pending against him for illegally confiscating church property in Raiwind; CLAAS notes that in most of those cases it provides legal assistance to the church.
Three months after the press conference, under the guidance of Basharat and with the financial support of Nathaniel, Roma/Aisha filed charges at the Icchara, Lahore police station against her father, mother, three sisters, Bishop Azariah, Pastor Khokhar and Francis; she accused all of them of forcibly detaining her, mistreating her and attempting to burn her.
All of the accused obtained pre-arrest bail. In July 2007, Francis went to England at the invitation of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, along with prominent political leaders, to attend a three-day conference in London. Summoned to a bail hearing on July 14, 2007, he came back on July 15, 2007 and appeared in court the next day, according to CLAAS.
On Dec. 24, 2008 Francis learned that Basharat had filed a new case against him, accusing him of concealing his travel abroad while on bail and forging a medical certificate. Also charged were CLAAS employee Ashar Sarfaraz and Sarfaraz’s brother-in-law, Zulfiqar Wilson.
The forgery charges arose after CLAAS submitted a medical certificate indicating that Francis, who suffers from diabetes, was too ill to return quickly for the court hearing on July 14, 2007. CLAAS Program Officer Katherine Sapna said that former CLAAS staff members Aneeqa Maria Akthar and Justin Gill submitted the medical certificate, but Akthar told Compass neither she nor Gill submitted any documents related to the certificate and never went to the court. She added that CLAAS had not even assigned her to the case.
“When someone submits any document before the court,” she told Compass, “the court takes the submission by getting signatures of a person who submits the document, and certainly there are no signatures of mine.”
She acknowledged that she discussed the matter with CLAAS lawyers at the time – Akbar Munawar Durrani, Tahir Gull and Aric John – and that she suggested that if Francis were to try to return in time for the July 14 court summons, it would cause an undue hardship on him as a diabetic to appear in court after arriving in Pakistan from England early in the morning.
“It was just a suggestion, and it did not lead to [me committing] forgery,” she said. “Instead, Ashar Sarfaraz heard this and he went to the doctor himself who was treating Mr. Francis, without asking or telling any of us, and got the certificate. He also submitted the certificate himself in the court, and not the lawyers.”
On these charges Francis obtained pre-arrest bail on Dec. 29, 2008, and when CLAAS filed a petition in Lahore High Court for the dismissal of this case, the court set a hearing for June 8, according to CLAAS.
At that hearing, Basharat’s lawyer accused Francis not only of being in contempt of court by having traveled abroad while on bail but of using his influence to harass Roma/Aisha into forsaking Islam – the young woman’s remaining a Muslim notwithstanding.
Francis’ counsel tried to explain to the court that Basharat and his wife were “misleading the court by purposely making it a religious issue for their own vested interest.” They informed the court that his travel was not concealed but public knowledge, having been published in major newspapers, and that therefore Francis had no reason to prepare or submit any documents explaining his actions.
“But the court overlooked every argument and dismissed the petition for dismissal,” according to CLAAS’ statement. “On July 9, the same judge who dismissed the petition rejected Mr. Joseph Francis’ bail in this case and ordered the police to arrest Mr. Francis.”
This is not the first time that Pakistani courts have put their bias against Christians on display, according to CLAAS.
“Over the years, CLAAS has perused several such cases in which law was overlooked and justice was denied to victims on the basis of their religion, gender, political affiliation and social status,” organization officials said in the statement.
CLAAS urged proponents of human rights to write the Pakistani president, prime minister, foreign and interior ministers, chief justice, federal minister of Law Justice and Human Rights, and Pakistani Embassies around the world.
Report from Compass Direct News