VOICE OF THE PERSECUTED

Category Archives: Pakistan

US Senators pressing Pakistan to release Asia Bibi

Mother of five, Asia Bibi with two of her children

Two top American Senators have introduced a resolution in the US Senate urging Pakistan to release a Pakistani-Christian woman who is serving a jail term for alleged violation of the country’s draconian blasphemy laws.

Senators Rand Paul and Chris Coons on Tuesday introduced a resolution urging Pakistan to release Aasiya Noreen, commonly referred to as Asia Bibi, a mother of five from Nankana area of Punjab province who was convicted of blasphemy in 2009 and has been on death row since 2010. However, after an international outcry, the Pakistani Supreme Court stayed her execution.

The senators also asked Pakistan to reform the laws that have led to the targeting of religious minorities. “My heart goes out to Asia Bibi as she continues to endure her unjust imprisonment in Pakistan,” said Paul. “It’s time for Pakistan to immediately release Asia Bibi and put a stop to the persecution of Christians and other religious minorities,” he added. Read More

VOP note: Please remember and keep Asia in your prayers.

Pakistani Christians ‘attacked’ as land dispute escalates

The Alba Presbyterian Church in Sankhatra, Narowal District, Pakistan. World Watch Monitor

The Alba Presbyterian Church in Sankhatra, Narowal District, Pakistan.
World Watch Monitor

(World Watch Monitor) More than 200 men, some armed with sticks, suddenly gathered on Wednesday morning (8 Feb) beside the Alba Presbyterian Church in Sankhatra, 115km north of Lahore, intent on building a boundary wall.

“Children were going to school and men were leaving for work when this large number stormed into the area and started construction,” said Asher Moon, 38, the church’s pastor. “Some of our men and women tried to intervene but they were called names and men armed with sticks beat them.”

Sankhatra is part of Narowal District, where Presbyterian missionaries from the US city of Philadelphia journeyed in 1855 to begin a mission that would spread the message of Christianity across Punjab, which had only come under British rule in 1849.

Thirty Christian families still live in Sankhatra, but their land has been under legal threat.

Moon, who took over the leadership of the church when his father died in 2011, said the police were “reluctant to register a case” against the attackers, although five women and a 13-year-old boy were among those hurt.

“For [the police], our being insulted has no meaning,” he said.

“We called the emergency response police three times, but they only arrived after two hours, after the crowd had beaten and insulted our men and women. The construction work was still going on and we showed them a magistrate’s injunction that no party can change the current status until the ownership of the land is decided in the court, but the police refused to acknowledge this court order.”

The legal battle has been raging for ownership of the 1750-square-yard piece of land since April 2016.

“It was even worse at that time,” said Moon. “They brought bulldozers and fired shots in the air and beat our men and women. They even demolished some of our houses.”

Moon said they had “rushed to court” to obtain an injunction against their eviction. They received it and the court case is ongoing.

But Moon said that last week “false propaganda” was spread that the court had ended the temporary injunction, leading the men to think they could return to demolish more buildings.

“Most of our people are illiterate and work menial jobs, so [the locals] had thought that it would be easy to fool them,” he said. But Moon had the injunction renewed at court on 6 February.

Chaudhry Kashir, a local Christian councillor, told World Watch Monitor that the attackers want to set up a market of between 50 to 100 shops on the land, which is beside a main road.

“The other party has documents that show that someone gave this [government-owned] land to the Christians for living about seven decades ago but there is no valid proof that is provided in the court yet,” he said. “Mostly, civil litigation on land issues goes on for 20 to 30 years in Pakistan. So parties indulge in criminally evicting the weaker side to show to the court that they are in possession of the land to strengthen their case.”

A local police officer, Ishtiaq Ahmed, said he didn’t know if the land had ever been owned by the government, but that the Christians were “lying” in saying that “this is their land, or that they have any connection with it”.

“The other party had legal documents,” he added.

Ahmed also claimed that no violence had taken place on Wednesday morning – only a “verbal clash”.

“If their women had been beaten, then the police would have registered a case,” he said. “There are no houses on the land and I don’t know if there were houses 10 months ago that were demolished.”

But Moon said there have been Christian homes on the land “since my childhood”.

“I was told that there used to be a pond for sanitary water but when the sewerage system was set up, this pond dried up and Christians filled it in with earth and built their homes,” he said. “Now this land has commercial value and they are trying to snatch it from us. Our opponents have encroached on the church land too: up to five feet on one side of the church, and 15 feet on the other side.

“The same police who were unwilling to register a case, and then were unwilling to accept the court injunction, are now having to acknowledge the court injunction because of pressure from higher authorities.”

Several attacks on Pakistan’s Christian minority have been linked to land disputes and it is thought this has also been the motive in several accusations of blasphemy against Christians. Incidents include the 2009 Gojra communal violence in which seven Christians died; the blasphemy accusation against 16-year-old Rimsha Masih in 2012 and the Joseph Colony arson attack in Lahore in March 2013.

As World Watch Monitor reported last year, Christians were also threatened with eviction from government land in Islamabad, the capital, because their “ugly” settlements spoil the landscape of “one of the most beautiful cities in the world”.

It used to be prohibited for members of the so-called “untouchable” castes – which includes many Christians – to buy land. Even today, most Christians live in irregular or illegal settlements on government land.

Background

Narowal is significant for the Pakistani Christian population because it’s the district where Christianity first started to spread through Presbyterian missionary Andrew Gordon in 1855.

In 1873 there were only about 4,000 Christians in Punjab, from diverse metropolitan backgrounds.

Then, 10 miles from Narowal, in 1873 an “untouchable” man known as “Ditt” (who had to skin dead animals and pick up garbage from the streets to survive) converted to Christianity. Ditt spread the Gospel among his caste in surrounding villages as US and European missionaries spread education and healthcare. From 1881, the number of Christians in Punjab multiplied from just a few thousand to over half a million by 1941.

Christian, 70, Charged with Blasphemy in Pakistan as 106 Muslims Are Acquitted

 

 

 

 

 

Muslim mob burn down and destroy entire Christian neighborhood for blasphemy charge claimed to be false.

Muslim mob burn down and destroy entire Christian neighborhood for blasphemy charge claimed to be false.

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A 70-year-old Christian in Pakistan was jailed on blasphemy charges on the same day 106 Muslims accused in a 2013 attack on a Christian colony were acquitted.

A mosque leader in the Lambanwali area north of Gujranwala, Punjab Province, on Jan. 28 accused Mukhtar Masih of writing two letters containing derogatory remarks about the Koran and Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, police records show. He was charged under Section 295-A, deliberate and malicious acts intending to outrage religious feelings, which carries a sentence of 10 years of prison and/or a fine, and under Section 298, derogatory remarks against “holy personages,” punishable by three years’ imprisonment and/or fine.

Police raided Masih’s house on Jan. 28 and took his entire family into custody, an area source told Morning Star News.

“The police took with them Masih, his son, daughter, and three children,” he said. “The family was later released on the intervention of rights outfits, but Masih was detained under blasphemy charges.”

The source said that the charges against Masih were fabricated by local Muslims seeking to seize his property. Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are often used to settle personal scores, and Islamist groups and lawyers advocating the harshest punishments often apply pressure for convictions on police and courts.

Mosque leader Qari Shahbaz Hussain alleges in the First Information Report (FIR No. 49/17) that area residents on Jan. 26 brought to his notice two letters containing the alleged blasphemous comments. He stated that an investigation by a local committee he headed revealed the letters were written by Masih.

Hussain claimed in the FIR that the committee had found Masih guilty and sought his prosecution under blasphemy charges. Hussain and other accusers were unavailable for comment, and Masih’s relatives have gone into hiding and were also unavailable.

The investigating officer refused repeated requests for comment, citing orders from his superiors.

Also on Jan. 28, an Anti-Terrorism Court in Lahore acquitted 106 Muslims accused of a massive attack on Joseph Colony, sparked by a blasphemy accusation in March 2013, after prosecution witnesses said they did not recognize any of the accused assailants.

More than 80 prosecution witnesses, 63 of them with statements recorded about the attack that destroyed more than 150 homes, said they did not recognize the accused. The 106 suspects, who were released on bail the day they were accused, appeared before judge Muhammad Azam.

On March 9, 2013, thousands of rioters armed with sticks, clubs and stones besieged Joseph Colony and torched the houses in the predominantly Christian neighborhood following allegations of blasphemy against a Christian, Sawan Masih.

The mob also torched three church buildings, several shops and a number of vehicles. Police later arrested both the rioters and the blasphemy suspect, who was charged under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC) for derogatory remarks about Muhammad, which mandates the death penalty.

Sawan Masih was sentenced to death on March 28, 2014. His appeal against the conviction is pending in the Lahore High Court.

Witnesses and police said the enraged mob ransacked and burned the entire locality a day after all Christian families left the area, as police apparently had alerted them about the possibility of an attack. The affected people, however, also accused police of doing nothing to stop the attack and plunder.

Blasphemy Suspect Released on Bail

Separately, a Christian facing the death penalty on blasphemy charges was granted bail by the Supreme Court on Wednesday (Feb 1) because of gaps in the investigation of his case, sources said.

Evangelist Adnan Prince had been in prison since Nov. 6, 2013, after he sought to correct misconceptions about Christianity in a Muslim book. He was charged with outraging religious feelings (Section 295-A), defiling the Koran (295-B) and derogatory remarks against Muhammad (295-C) of Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy laws. He denied having written anything against Islam or Muhammad when he scribbled in a Muslim book he found in a glassworks shop where his brother worked.

The accused’s lead counsel, Asma Jahangir, indicated that deficiencies in the case against Prince led to his release on bail. She told reporters that there were no direct eyewitnesses, and all forensic evidence failed to link the accused in the case against her client.

She added that the case should have been decided within two years. Prince was jailed on Nov. 9, 2013. Jahangir said the case was not decided within two years due to lawyers’ strikes and prosecution delay tactics. She added that legal formalities were not fulfilled when investigating the matter.

“According to guidelines passed by the Supreme Court, a police officer not below the rank of a superintendent should have conducted the probe,” she reportedly said.

Attorney Nadeem Anthony, another member of Prince’s defense team, said that on the court’s directions, Sections 295-A and 295-B have been dropped, and the evangelist is facing only 295-C, punishable by death.

Blasphemy suspects have long been targeted by Islamist vigilantes in Pakistan. At least 65 people, including lawyers, defendants and judges, have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to figures from a Center for Research and Security Studies report and local media.

A three-member bench headed by Justice Dost Muhammad Khan on Wednesday (Feb. 1) ordered Prince’s release on bail.

Pakistani politicians initiate debate to amend the blasphemy law

 

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(Agenzia Fides) The debate to amend the controversial “blasphemy law”, composed of the articles of the Penal Code that punish with life imprisonment or the death penalty insults against Islam has begun in the Pakistani Senate. It was Muslim Senator Farhatullah Baber, a member of the Pakistan People’s Party and representative of the Special Committee of the Pakistani Senate on human rights, to introduce the theme to look for ways to stop the abuse of the law.

The new attempt to discuss the matter in Parliament comes a decade after parliamentary Minocher Bhandara, a Zoroastrian, presented in 2007 a bill with amendments to the blasphemy law. The proposal was immediately blocked by the then Minister for Parliamentary Affairs, Sher Afgan Niazi, for fear of offending the feelings of Muslims, appealing to the principle that “no law should contradict Islamic law”. (more…)

PAKISTAN – A Christian arrested for alleged blasphemy

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Lahore (Agenzia Fides) – Babu Shahbaz, a Christian from the village of Kamahan, near Lahore, was arrested by the police for alleged blasphemy. As Fides learns, on December 30 a formal complaint was filed to the police against Babu Shahbaz, under Article 295 b of the Penal Code of Pakistan. The complaint came after the Muslim, Haji Nadeem accused the Christian of having torn and thrown pages of the Koran in the street. Shahbaz is illiterate and cannot write.

Babu Shahbaz, 41, lives in the village of Kamahan, is married and has three children. An evangelical Christian who in the past 15 years has organized prayer meetings at his house, and many Christians and Muslims participate in the small home meetings, asking blessings and healing prayer. The local Muslims have shown impatience towards the growing popularity of Shahbaz and therefore have accused him of a false case of blasphemy.

After the complaint, the police stopped the Christian and his family, sending several officers to the village to monitor the situation and prevent possible mass reactions against Christians.

Shahbaz’ family have asked for assistance to the NGO Centre for Legal Aid, Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) who spoke with the police and ascertained the situation, providing legal assistance to the family.

“The abuse of the blasphemy law continues to attack Christians and other religious minorities”, says CLAAS to Fides. “We hope the story is clarified as soon as possible, otherwise the fate of Shahbaz will be the same as Asia Bibi, Sawan Masih, Zaffar Bhatti and many others who, innocent, have been in prison for years. It is urgent to amend the blasphemy law to prevent abuses. If the government does not change this law, false cases of blasphemy against religious minorities will continue. The blasphemy law violates international human rights treaties ratified by the government of Pakistan”.

45 Christian Refugees arrested in Thailand

Dec. 2015: Child arrested with his mother and brought to court in caged police van. Children remain incarcerated along side their parents.

Dec. 2015: Child arrested with his mother and brought to court in caged police van. Children remain incarcerated along side their parents.

Thai immigration authorities raided and arrested 45 Pakistani Christian asylum seekers, including (approx. 22) children, who hold United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) asylum seeker cards. They will be brought to court tomorrow, likely put into the horrific conditions at the Immigration Detention Centre IDC. With only 15 days until Christmas, the entire community is devastated.  (more…)

An Open Letter to President-Elect Donald J. Trump: Pressure Pakistan to Release Asia Bibi

asia-bibi-letter-to-trump-900
Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after a dispute with her Muslim coworkers. She drank from the same water source they did.

Dear President-elect Trump,

Congratulations on winning the election. We are praying for the success of your administration in bringing restoration and renewal of democracy, freedom and prosperity to the United States, and in taking leadership in critical global issues.

Your recent phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been widely reported in the media. In a statement released by Pakistan’s Press Information Department, you were quoted as telling Prime Minister Sharif, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”

Mr. President-elect, we appreciate your desire to work on outstanding problems in Pakistan. From our perspective and in the belief of millions who helped you to win the election, one of those issues is Pakistan’s unjust blasphemy law. This law prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith, as well as for the desecration of the Quran. Christians, other religious minorities in Pakistan, and even Muslims have suffered unimaginable and egregious violations of human rights because of this law.

Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

In addition to the initial problem — that such a law violates universal standards of religious freedom, freedom of speech, etc. — the law is used in a capricious and malicious manner. Accusations of “blasphemy” are most often untrue and no more than a means to inflict harm on a business rival, seize coveted property, or punish someone for being a Christian. But once the accusation is made, the Islamist fervor is ignited. Mobs try to kill anyone associated with the accused person and are known for destroying whole communities of vulnerable Christians. Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is one of victims of this law. Her case, in our opinion, epitomizes what is wrong with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In June 2009, Mrs. Bibi was accused of blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad following a dispute with her Muslim co-workers. The argument started because Asia Bibi, a lowly Christian, dared to drink from the same water source as the Muslims. (Christians are treated as second-class citizens in such communities that are dominated by Islam.)

Mrs. Bibi was sentenced to death in November 2010, making her the first woman in Pakistan to face capital punishment for blasphemy. This outrageous verdict was condemned by thousands around the world, including high ranking Pakistani government officials. The Muslim governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a courageous defender of human rights for people of all faiths, was a vocal critic of the unjust punishment meted out on Asia Bibi. On January 4, 2011, Governor Taseer was brutally murdered by his own security guard for his advocacy for the Christian woman. And on March 2, 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian state-level minister, was gunned down for defending Asia Bibi. His assassination had been preceded by death threats because Bhatti called for reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

President-elect Trump, we understand the complexity of dealing with the blasphemy law in Pakistan. But we also know that your administration can take some practical steps to pressure Pakistan to release Asia Bibi and others imprisoned because of this law.

We urge you, Mr. President-elect, to make pressuring Pakistan to abolish its blasphemy law a matter of priority. The law has emboldened religious extremists and has become a source of constant terror against millions of religious minorities and others in the country.

May God bless you as you build your team and prepare to lead our nation.

With best wishes,

Faith J. H. McDonnell and Darara Gubo

Dear President-elect Trump,

Congratulations on winning the election. We are praying for the success of your administration in bringing restoration and renewal of democracy, freedom and prosperity to the United States, and in taking leadership in critical global issues.

Your recent phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been widely reported in the media. In a statement released by Pakistan’s Press Information Department, you were quoted as telling Prime Minister Sharif, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”

Mr. President-elect, we appreciate your desire to work on outstanding problems in Pakistan. From our perspective and in the belief of millions who helped you to win the election, one of those issues is Pakistan’s unjust blasphemy law. This law prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith, as well as for the desecration of the Quran. Christians, other religious minorities in Pakistan, and even Muslims have suffered unimaginable and egregious violations of human rights because of this law.

Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

In addition to the initial problem — that such a law violates universal standards of religious freedom, freedom of speech, etc. — the law is used in a capricious and malicious manner. Accusations of “blasphemy” are most often untrue and no more than a means to inflict harm on a business rival, seize coveted property, or punish someone for being a Christian. But once the accusation is made, the Islamist fervor is ignited. Mobs try to kill anyone associated with the accused person and are known for destroying whole communities of vulnerable Christians. Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is one of victims of this law. Her case, in our opinion, epitomizes what is wrong with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In June 2009, Mrs. Bibi was accused of blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad following a dispute with her Muslim co-workers. The argument started because Asia Bibi, a lowly Christian, dared to drink from the same water source as the Muslims. (Christians are treated as second-class citizens in such communities that are dominated by Islam.)

Mrs. Bibi was sentenced to death in November 2010, making her the first woman in Pakistan to face capital punishment for blasphemy. This outrageous verdict was condemned by thousands around the world, including high ranking Pakistani government officials. The Muslim governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a courageous defender of human rights for people of all faiths, was a vocal critic of the unjust punishment meted out on Asia Bibi. On January 4, 2011, Governor Taseer was brutally murdered by his own security guard for his advocacy for the Christian woman. And on March 2, 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian state-level minister, was gunned down for defending Asia Bibi. His assassination had been preceded by death threats because Bhatti called for reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

President-elect Trump, we understand the complexity of dealing with the blasphemy law in Pakistan. But we also know that your administration can take some practical steps to pressure Pakistan to release Asia Bibi and others imprisoned because of this law.

We urge you, Mr. President-elect, to make pressuring Pakistan to abolish its blasphemy law a matter of priority. The law has emboldened religious extremists and has become a source of constant terror against millions of religious minorities and others in the country.

May God bless you as you build your team and prepare to lead our nation.

With best wishes,

Faith J. H. McDonnell and Darara Gubo

Dear President-elect Trump,

Congratulations on winning the election. We are praying for the success of your administration in bringing restoration and renewal of democracy, freedom and prosperity to the United States, and in taking leadership in critical global issues.

Your recent phone call with Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has been widely reported in the media. In a statement released by Pakistan’s Press Information Department, you were quoted as telling Prime Minister Sharif, “I am ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems.”

Mr. President-elect, we appreciate your desire to work on outstanding problems in Pakistan. From our perspective and in the belief of millions who helped you to win the election, one of those issues is Pakistan’s unjust blasphemy law. This law prescribes the death penalty for blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith, as well as for the desecration of the Quran. Christians, other religious minorities in Pakistan, and even Muslims have suffered unimaginable and egregious violations of human rights because of this law.

Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

In addition to the initial problem — that such a law violates universal standards of religious freedom, freedom of speech, etc. — the law is used in a capricious and malicious manner. Accusations of “blasphemy” are most often untrue and no more than a means to inflict harm on a business rival, seize coveted property, or punish someone for being a Christian. But once the accusation is made, the Islamist fervor is ignited. Mobs try to kill anyone associated with the accused person and are known for destroying whole communities of vulnerable Christians. Many accused of blasphemy are never convicted, but are killed nevertheless, by jihadist mobs.

Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, is one of victims of this law. Her case, in our opinion, epitomizes what is wrong with Pakistan’s blasphemy law. In June 2009, Mrs. Bibi was accused of blasphemy against the Muslim prophet Muhammad following a dispute with her Muslim co-workers. The argument started because Asia Bibi, a lowly Christian, dared to drink from the same water source as the Muslims. (Christians are treated as second-class citizens in such communities that are dominated by Islam.)

Mrs. Bibi was sentenced to death in November 2010, making her the first woman in Pakistan to face capital punishment for blasphemy. This outrageous verdict was condemned by thousands around the world, including high ranking Pakistani government officials. The Muslim governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, a courageous defender of human rights for people of all faiths, was a vocal critic of the unjust punishment meted out on Asia Bibi. On January 4, 2011, Governor Taseer was brutally murdered by his own security guard for his advocacy for the Christian woman. And on March 2, 2011 Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan’s only Christian state-level minister, was gunned down for defending Asia Bibi. His assassination had been preceded by death threats because Bhatti called for reforming Pakistan’s blasphemy law.

President-elect Trump, we understand the complexity of dealing with the blasphemy law in Pakistan. But we also know that your administration can take some practical steps to pressure Pakistan to release Asia Bibi and others imprisoned because of this law.

We urge you, Mr. President-elect, to make pressuring Pakistan to abolish its blasphemy law a matter of priority. The law has emboldened religious extremists and has become a source of constant terror against millions of religious minorities and others in the country.

May God bless you as you build your team and prepare to lead our nation.

With best wishes,

Faith J. H. McDonnell and Darara Gubo

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan in Washington, DC, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007). Find her at theird.org.

Dr. Darara Gubo is a human rights activist working on behalf of the persecuted church, and is the author of Blasphemy and Defamation of Religions in a Polarized World: How Religious Fundamentalism Is Challenging Fundamental Human Rights (Lexington Books, December 16, 2014). Find him at continuetoremember@gmail.com

shared with permission source

Five Muslims Sentenced to Death in Pakistan for Heinous Murder of Christian couple

Composite of Shahzad Masih and Shama Masih. (Morning Star News courtesy of famly)

Composite of Shahzad Masih and Shama Masih. (Morning Star News courtesy of famly)

LAHORE, Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A court in Lahore has handed the death sentence to five Muslims for torturing and killing an impoverished Christian couple over allegations of burning the Koran, sources said.

Eight others charged in the attack were sentenced to two years in prison, sources said. Hundreds of villagers in Kot Radha Kishan, incited by Muslim leaders calling for violence via mosque loudspeakers, were involved in the Nov. 4, 2014 assault in which 26-year-old Shahzad Masih and his five-months pregnant wife, Shama, 24, were thrown into a burning brick kiln. [Read VOP Nov. 6 2014 report condemning the horrific attack]

Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) Judge Chaudhry Azam on Wednesday (Nov. 25) handed death sentences to Irfan Shakoor, Muhammad Hanif, Mehdi Khan, Riaz Kamboh and Hafiz Ishtiaq, along with a fine of 200,000 rupees (US$1,900) to each for inciting violence against the Christian couple and throwing them into the kiln. The judge ordered the two-year prison terms for Noorul Hasan, Muhammad Arsalan, Muhammad Haris, Hussain, Muhammad Munir, Muhammad Ramzan, Irfan and Hafiz Shahid.

Attorney Riaz Anjum, who represented the father of the deceased woman, told Morning Star News that although more than 50 people had been originally charged in the lynching, most of them had been acquitted after family members of Shahzad Masih recorded statements denying that they were present at the scene.

“Nonetheless, it is encouraging news for the Christian community in Pakistan,” Anjum said. “The families of the deceased people have suffered a lot of pressure, even though the state had become the complainant in the case to thwart any attempt to pressure the victims’ family for reaching a settlement with the powerful accused. But conviction of five people by the court is no small feat, and I hope this verdict would be seen as a stern warning against any such violence against minorities in the future.”

Masih and his wife worked as bonded laborers at the brick kiln when the throng descended on them after area Muslims accused them of committing blasphemy by burning Quranic pages.

The mob tore the clothes off them, struck them, broke their legs, dragged them behind a tractor and threw them into the burning furnace of a brick kiln – even though Shama was illiterate and could not have known even if koranic verses were among debris that she had burned. Under Pakistan’s widely condemned blasphemy statutes, intent must be shown for a conviction of desecrating the Koran.

On Nov. 2, 2014 Shama Masih was cleaning her quarters in Chak 59 village near Kot Radha Kishan, Karur District, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) southwest of Lahore, when she found amulets of her late father-in-law, who had used them in the practice of black magic. The amulets may have contained koranic verses, and a Muslim co-worker, Muhammad Irfan, noticed half-burnt papers and accused the family of desecrating the Koran, relatives said.

The couple is survived by their four children.

Attorney Anjum said that the convicts would now surely file appeals with the high court against their sentences, “but I am confident that the high court will uphold the trial court’s verdict.”

Commenting on the bail given to the lead suspect in the case, Yousuf Gujjar, Anjum said the brick kiln owner had managed to secure bail from the court after Shahzad Masih’s family members testified that he was not present at the kiln when the mob killed the Christian couple.

In addition, state’s witnesses, including police official Muhammad Ali, who had witnessed the entire crime and had named Gujjar as the main inciter of violence in the First Information Report (FIR), retracted their statements against the kiln owner when the trial began,sources said.

Punjab Province Minister for Human Rights Khalil Tahir Sindhu has stated that police found Gujjar and his son had instigated a local Muslim prayer leader to declare the couple guilty of blasphemy from the loudspeaker of his mosque. Morning Star News made repeated attempts to contact Sindhu to enquire why the police witnesses had retracted their original statements and whether the government had initiated an inquiry, but he remained inaccessible by phone.

Aneeqa Maria, an attorney with The Voice Society, which provided legal support to the deceased woman’s family, said 52 people had been named in the original FIR, while names of 88 others were included later after investigation.

“Shahzad and Shama could have lived that day if Yousuf Gujjar had allowed them to leave the kiln before violence began,” she said. “He told the couple they could not leave until they had paid back their loan, and thus he is equally responsible for their deaths.”

Still, Christian rights activists and socio-political workers lauded the court’s verdict. Prominent minority rights activist and chairman of the Pakistan Interfaith League (PIL) Sajid Ishaq said it was a difficult but just decision.

“Awarding death sentences to five persons and jail term of two years each to eight others is a big reassurance to the minority communities of Pakistan,” Ishaq told Morning Star News. “Today, the minority communities feel protected, and their confidence in the judiciary has gained a great deal of strength.”

On Nov. 3, 2014, Muslim neighbors of the couple accused Shama Masih of burning pages of Islam’s holy book, stoking religious tension in the area. Although police were informed about a possible attack on the Christian families resident at the kiln, the police only sent a mobile squad of five officers to monitor the situation.

Early the next day, a mob of several hundred Muslims gathered at the kiln after announcements were made overnight on village mosque loudspeakers calling for “death to the blasphemers.”

Shahzad Masih and his brothers pleaded with Gujjar to let them escape, but he refused to let them go until they paid their debt, sources said. Soon afterwards, the mob got hold of the Christian couple and subjected them to torture, beating them near death and later throwing their bodies, still believed to be alive, into the flames.

The incident caused an outrage in national and international media and civil society, prompting the Pakistani government to take the unprecedented step of becoming the complainant in the case. But sources have said the state later lost interest, allowing several of those directly involved to walk away free by manipulating gaps in the Pakistani legal system.

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Recommended: Read a Persecuted Christian’s message to the West for a true account of the reality of life for Christians in Pakistan HERE.

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