Violent Death of Girl in Pakistan Spurs Push for Justice

Rare protest by family of tortured child puts spotlight on abuse of Christian working poor.

LAHORE, Pakistan, January 28 (CDN) — A daring protest and a high-profile funeral here on Monday (Jan. 25) for a 12-year-old Christian girl who died from torture and malnourishment has cast a rare spotlight on abuse of the Christian poor in Pakistan.

In an uncommon challenge in the predominantly Muslim nation, the Christian parents of Shazia Bashir Masih protested police unresponsiveness to the alleged violence against their daughter by Muslim attorney Chaudhary Muhammad Naeem and his family and his attempt to buy their silence after her death. The house servant died on Friday (Jan. 22) after working eight months in Naeem’s house.

An initial medical report indicated she died gradually from blows from a blunt instrument, wounds from a sharp-edged weapon, misuse of medicines and malnourishment. Key media highlighted the case on Pakistan’s airwaves, and minority rights groups along with high-ranking Christian politicians have swooped in to help.

Initially police were unresponsive to the family’s efforts to file charges against Muslim attorney Naeem, and on Saturday (Jan. 23) they staged a protest in front of the Punjab Assembly. The power of Naeem, a former president of the Lahore Bar Association, was such that officers at Litton Road police station refused to listen to Shazia’s relatives when they tried to file a complaint to retrieve her three months ago, telling the girl’s relatives, “a case against a lawyer cannot be registered,” her uncle Rafiq Masih told Compass.

Her mother, Nasreen Bibi, told Compass Naeem came to their home on the day Shazia died and offered 30,000 rupees (US$350) to keep the death secret and to pay for burial expenses.

“I refused to accept their offer, and they went they went away hurling death threats,” she said.

Bibi, a widow who subsequently married a 70-year-old blind man, told Compass that hunger and poverty had forced her to send her daughter to work at Naeem’s house for 1,000 rupees per month (US$12) – the family’s only source of income. Two older daughters are married, and she still cares for a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son living at home.

Rafiq Masih said Naeem illegally kept Shazia at his house, forced her to work long hours and summarily refused family requests to see her. Three months ago, Masih said, Naeem allowed him and Shazia’s mother to see her for five minutes, and the girl complained that Naeem and his son were raping her. Shazia also told them that Naeem, his wife and sister-in-law were beating her and threatening to harm her if she tried to escape.

Enraged, Naeem promptly asked him and Shazia’s mother to leave, Masih said.

“We tried to bring Shazia with us back home,” he said, “but Naeem flatly refused to let Shazia go, and he cruelly and inhumanely grabbed her hair and dragged her inside the house. He returned to threaten us with dire consequences if we tried to file a case against him for keeping Shazia at his home as a bonded laborer.”

Masih and Bibi then went to the Litton Road police station to try to get Naeem to release Shazia, and it was then that duty officers deliberately offered the misinformation that a case could not be made against a lawyer, they said.

A Muslim neighbor of Naeem, Shaukat Ali Agha, told Compass that Naeem tortured Shazia.

“Often that little girl’s cries for mercy could be heard from the residence of the lawyer during the dead of night,” Agha said. “And whenever Shazia requested some food, she got thrashed badly by his wife, son and sister-in-law. One day Shazia was viciously beaten when, forced by starvation, she could not resist picking up a small piece of sugar cane from the lawn of Naeem’s residence to chew.”

As Shazia’s condition deteriorated, Naeem released her to the family and they took her to Jinnah Hospital Lahore on Jan. 19. After fighting for her life there for three days, she succumbed to her injuries and critically malnourished condition, her mother said.

Doctors at the hospital told Compass they found 18 wounds on her body: 13 from a blunt instrument, and five from a “sharp-edged weapon.”

A high-ranking investigating official told Compass that Naeem had given contrary statements under questioning. The police official said that Naeem initially stated that Shazia had fallen down some stairs and died. The police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Naeem quickly changed his statement, saying she had stolen food from the refrigerator and therefore was beaten. The official added that Naeem also said Shazia was insane, disobedient and stubborn, and “therefore she had gotten thrashed and died.”

Doctors at Mayo Hospital Morgue have taken blood and tissue samples from Shazia’s liver, stomach and kidneys and sent them to the Chief Chemical Examiner’s Forensic Lab in Islamabad to determine the official causes of death, officials said.

Family Beaten in Court

On Saturday (Jan. 23) Shazia’s family, along with many other Christians and Muslims, protested outside the Punjab Assembly for three hours, according to rights groups. Key television channels covered police inaction in the face of the violent death, and several high-profile politicians pledged their support, including Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. He promised to give the family 500,000 rupees (US$5,835) after Pakistani Minister of Minorities Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti announced a gift of the same amount to compensate the family.

Only after this public pressure did police file a First Information Report, and Naeem and six others, including family members, were arrested earlier this week. Chief Minister of Punjab Shahbaz Sharif reportedly visited the family, promising justice.

The Lahore High Court took up the case on Tuesday (Jan. 26) and ordered police to conclude investigations within 14 days, but none of the high-level action seemed to matter at a hearing that day at District and Sessions Court Lahore, at which Naeem and his accusers were present. As routinely happens in cases where Christians in Pakistan accuse Muslims of wrongdoing, Compass observed as Naeem’s lawyers chanted slogans against Shazia’s family, threatened them and beat them – including Bibi and her blind husband – driving them from the courtroom.

Compass witnessed the Muslim attorneys yelling chants against local media and Christianity, as well. Naeem was neither handcuffed nor escorted by Defense A-Division Police, though he has been charged with murder.

At Shazia’s funeral on Monday at Sacred Heart Cathedral Church, Bishop of Lahore Diocese the Rt. Rev. Alexander John Malik officiated as eminent Christian politicians, human rights activists, Christian clergymen and many others gathered to pay their respects amid heavy police contingents.

After the funeral, her body was taken to her home in the Sammanabad slum of Arriya Nagar, where a throng of neighbors and Christian mourners gathered, chanting for justice. Shazia’s coffin was then taken to Miani Sahib Christian Cemetery, where she was buried amid cries and tears.

Present at the burial ceremonies were Provincial Minister of Punjab for Minorities Affairs Kamran Michael, Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs Bhatti, Christian members of Punjab Parliament Tahir Naveed Chaudhary and Khalil Tahir Sindhu, Bishop Albert Javed, Bishop Samuel Azariah, National Director of the Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement Joseph Francis and other Christian leaders.

In a joint statement issued that day in Lahore, Catholic Archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha and Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Council for Justice and Peace, said that Shazia’s death was not an isolated incident, but that violence against the more than 10 million child laborers in the country is commonplace.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Christian Sentenced to Life under ‘Blasphemy’ Law

Young man convicted of ‘desecrating Quran’ by accusation of rival shopkeeper.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, January 22 (CDN) — A young Christian shopkeeper was sentenced to a life term in prison and fined more than $1,000 last week following a dubious conviction of desecrating the Quran, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Peter Jacob, general secretary of the NCJP, said 22-year-old Imran Masih of the Faisalabad suburb of Hajvairy was convicted of desecrating the Quran (Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code) and thereby outraging religious feelings (Section 295-A) by Additional District & Sessions Judge Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan on Jan. 11. The conviction was based on the accusation of a rival shopkeeper who, as part of an Islamic extremist proselytizing group, allegedly used a mosque loudspeaker system to incite a mob that beat Masih and ransacked his shop.

Neighboring shopkeeper Hajji Liaquat Abdul Ghafoor accused Masih of tearing out pages of the Quran and burning them on July 1, 2009. Denying that he burned any pages of the Quran, Masih told investigators that the papers he burned were a heap of old merchandise records he had gathered while cleaning his store.

Masih’s family members said Ghafoor fabricated the blasphemy case against him because of a business dispute. Nearby shopkeepers, initially reluctant to talk out of fear of reprisals but eventually speaking on condition of anonymity, told Compass that they had seen the two men arguing over business a few days before the incident occurred.

The shopkeepers said that when Masih burned the papers, Ghafoor started shouting that he had desecrated the Quran and blasphemed Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. In the case against Masih, police later accused Ghafoor of misusing the loudspeaker system of a mosque to stir up the mob.

“Ghafoor started shouting that Masih had desecrated the Quran and made blasphemous remarks about Islam and prophet Muhammad,” said one of the shopkeepers. “Ghafoor spread misconceptions about Imran Masih, and a mob of angry Muslim men unaware of the facts attacked Masih and viciously beat him, looted his shop and later handed him over to police.”

The shopkeepers added that Ghafoor was a hard-line Muslim and part of an Islamic proselytizing group.

Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code, desecrating the Quran, is punishable by imprisonment for life. In accordance with Section 295-A (instigating religious hatred and outraging religious feelings), Masih was also sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170); if he is unable to pay the fine, he will be assessed an additional six months in jail.

A conviction for blaspheming Muhammad (Section 295-C) is punishable by death under Pakistani’s notorious blasphemy laws. Widely condemned by the international community as easily invoked to settle personal enmities, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under review in recent months, but to no avail.

The laws are routinely invoked to harass members of minority communities. Additionally, while police cannot make arrests without a court-issued warrant for Section 295-A, they can arrest suspected blasphemers under sections 295-B and 295-C on the complaint of a single individual.

Masih is incarcerated at District Jail Faisalabad. Sources said he plans to appeal his sentence to the Lahore High Court.

“No pages of the Quran were burned or desecrated,” said one member of Masih’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was just a lame excuse to implicate him in a fabricated case of blasphemy.”

Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian member of Punjab’s legislative assembly and Sargodha zone head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said Masih’s case was just one in a long list of incidents in which blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal grudges. He said that APMA would provide legal assistance to Masih.

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 

Recent Incidents of Persecution

Uttar Pradesh, India, September 29 (CDN) — Hindu extremists chased a pastor into hiding on Sept. 19 in Lucknow. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that hardliners from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad ( World Hindu Council or VHP), Bharatiya Janata Party and Bajrang Dal (youth wing of the VHP) accused Pastor Bechu Azah Chhedi of forceful conversions as they arrived in large number at his church in Ramdaspur village and disrupted the worship service. The same group has attacked the pastor three times, reported AICC, and local Christians who found out about the extremists’ plan hid him. The pastor has relocated for safety.

Jammu and Kashmir – Police detained Pastor Salamat Masih and three others on false charges of forceful conversion on Sept. 17 in Hira Nagar. The Global Council of Indian Christians reported that Hindu extremists from the Shiv Sena (Religious Army) beat the pastor and falsely accused him of offering 10,000 rupees (US$207) to each of three converts from Hinduism about to be baptized. Police arrived and took the pastor and the three others to the police station, keeping them in custody for two days as a safety measure; local people incited by the extremists were eager to attack them, reported a source. No case was filed against the pastor after the intervention of local Christian leaders.

Andhra Pradesh – About 10 Hindu extremists on Sept. 13 attacked a worship meeting of Opier Ministries Evangelical Church in Warangal, beating a pastor. The All India Christian Council (AICC) reported that around 1 p.m., the intolerant Hindus barged into the worship service conducted by Pastor Pilly Kumar, verbally abused and beat him, and destroyed a sign board bearing the church’s name. The pastor filed a police complaint, but officers refused to register a case. In May the extremists had warned the pastor not to conduct worship services in the area, reported the AICC.

Madhya Pradesh – Police arrested eight Christians from Blessing Youth Mission (BYM) under the state’s anti-conversion law on Sept. 12 in Katni. A source reported that Christians, including women, were on their way to visit their children at a BYM hostel. They were waiting on the railway platform when, as a Christian worker scheduled to pick them up arrived, railway police arrived and accused them of forceful conversion, blasphemy against Hindu gods and creating havoc. The charges included “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of others with acts done by several persons in furtherance of common intention.” The Christians were detained for about 20 hours and released on bail.

Karnataka – A group of unidentified men attacked St. Francis De Sales Church near Hebbagudi, Bangalore early on the morning of Sept. 10. The Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC) reported that the men were carrying weapons and broke into the building, damaging windows. The Press Trust of India reported that statues of Infant Jesus and Mother Mary on the premises were damaged. The group also tried to burn a van parked in front of the church building. Damages were estimated at about 200,000 rupees (US$4,144), reported the GCIC. The church has filed a complaint and a First Information Report at Hebbagudi police station. Last year Karnataka, ruled by the Hindu extremist Bharatiya Janata Party, faced a series of attacks on churches in Mangalore, Bangalore, Davanagere, Kodagu and other towns.

Karnataka – Hindu extremists from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and Shiv Sena (Religious Army) on Sept. 10 attacked a pastor identified only as Ramanjaniah, accused him of cheating people and of forceful conversion, then beat him and paraded him on the street in Tumkur. The Global Council of Indian Christian reported that the pastor was conducting a prayer meeting at a Christian’s house when the intolerant Hindus stormed into the house and assaulted him. They tore a Bible and beat, punched and kicked the pastor and continued beating him as they dragged him about one kilometer. The pastor received hospital treatment for fractures in his face and leg. The extremists pressured police to restrain the pastor from future preaching, but officers only requested the pastor inform them before he conducts worship. They promised police protection should he require it.

Madhya Pradesh – Police arrested a Christian worker for “preaching to forcefully convert people to Christianity” based on a complaint filed by the Hindu extremist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) on Sept. 8 in Barwani district. Sources reported that the RSS members dragged Gopi Krishnan of Friends Missionaries Prayer Band (FMPB) to the police station to file the complaint against him. The police booked him for joining in an assembly of more than five people after being commanded to disperse, and of abetment of the offense. Krishnan appeared before the sub-divisional magistrate the next day and was sent to Barwani district jail. He was granted bail on Sept. 10. FMPB representative Ravi Kumar told Compass that RSS members are pressuring Krishnan to leave his house before Sept. 30 or face harm. The Christian is scheduled to appear before a magistrate on Nov. 9. Local Christian leaders maintained that preaching to “forcefully convert” people does not take place in the area.

Rajasthan – About 30 Hindu extremists on Sept. 4 assaulted two Christian workers from Gospel for Asia and chased them into the jungle near Banswada. Sources reported that the extremists waylaid the two Christians as they were returning from a prayer meeting and viciously beat them and verbally abused them. The Christians fled and hid in the nearby forest. A Christian search team found the duo at midnight and gave them shelter. A Gospel for Asia representative said their names could not be disclosed for security reasons.

Orissa – Suspected Hindu extremists armed with country pistols and swords on Sept. 3 attacked Pastor Isaac Digal of Good Shepherd Community Church for holding a worship service in his house – beating him, his wife and daughter and ransacking his home in Kandhamal. The All India Christian Council reported that the extremists also took his mobile phone, bank book and ATM card. The Hindu extremists had reportedly made an earlier attempt to destroy his house and had threatened him several times. Police arrived at the scene, and the pastor filed a complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Andhra Pradesh – About 30 Hindu extremists attacked a pastor and a church on Aug. 30 in Mudinepalli. The All India Christian Council reported the Hindu extremists installed a microphone on the roof of the church building, and a Hindu idol in front it, as part of the Hindu Ganesh festival. Pastor Solomon Raju asked the extremists and a local official to move the mike to some other place, with the Hindu hardliners responding by disrupting the Sunday worship service and beating the pastor. He filed a police complaint. No arrests had been made at press time.

Report from Compass Direct News