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Muslim Gunmen in Pakistan Wound at least Four Christians

Pregnant woman said to be among those injured.

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Muslims in an area of Lahore, Pakistan on Monday (Sept. 6) fired high-powered weapons at the homes of Christians, wounding a pregnant woman and at least three other people, sources said.

A wounded Christian resident in the Shamsabad locality of Lahore’s Sherakot area, Asif Masih, said he heard shouts followed by bursts of gunfire from fully automatic assault rifles after he returned home from work that afternoon.

“When I was telling my kids to get inside, I saw a group of heavily armed men firing indiscriminately at a church located on the street,” Masih told Morning Star News. “They then trained their weapons on the homes of neighboring Christians and fired volleys of bullets at them.”

Gunmen eyeing him opened fire on him, wounding him in both thighs, he said.

“I barely managed to drag myself into my house and locked the gate, but they did not stop firing,” Masih said. “I could hear them shouting that they would not spare Christians living in the area and would also burn down our church.”

The assailants, identified as Dilshad Dogar, Butt Gas Wala and Chand Khencha, fired hundreds of bullets from Kalashnikov (AK-47) rifles and other weapons into homes in the area where more than 300 Christian families live, he said. Bullets pierced the gates of several homes, wounding three women identified as Nirma Bibi, Maria Kashif and Samina, and other Christians, he said.

“One of the injured women is six months pregnant,” Masih said. “She was hit in the leg by one of the several bullets fired at their gate, but fortunately her family members were able to secure her inside.”

Many people called the police emergency helpline after the shooting started at 2:30 p.m., but officers did not arrive until 8 p.m., he said, adding that local police have been lax in prosecuting the suspects as they were influential people. Masih was one of the complainants in the case against the gunmen.

“Our entire street has been riddled with bullets, and people have been injured, but the police have not included the sections related to terrorism in the FIR [First Information Report],” he said. “Moreover, I had stated in my application to the police that the accused had continuously threatened to burn the church and harm us, but even these facts were missing in the formal FIR.”

Registered the day after the attack, the FIR states that it arose out of a dispute between a Christian, Asghar Masih, and Dogar. Asif Masih denied the police version, saying officers were trying to protect the suspects.

“Ask them why Dogar and his accomplices opened fire on the homes of Christians and injured innocent people like us if they had just a personal dispute with an individual?” he said. “The police have been protecting the accused since day one because they are Muslims, and we are poor Christians.”

Attorney Javed Gill, a senior leader of the Christian Lawyers Association of Pakistan, said there were conflicting reports about the motives for the shooting.

“Several residents have claimed that the accused were opposed to the presence of a church in the locality and had been pressuring them to stop worship there, while some are saying that the incident was an outcome of a dispute over a girl,” Gill told Morning Star News. “Nonetheless, even if it was a dispute between two people, how can anyone justify the targeting of the entire Christian neighborhood with automatic weapons?”

Several hundred bullets were fired from various illegal weapons resulting in injuries, yet police failed to include Section 7 of the Anti-Terrorism Act in the FIR, which would have made the attack a non-bailable offense, he said. Gill said police were also unable to explain why they did not intervene timely while gunmen were shooting innocent people and damaging property.

“Thank God no one lost their life in the gruesome attack, but the manner in which the accused acted shows that they would not have desisted from murdering any person who came in their way,” he said.

Police Response

Muhammad Azeem, station house officer of the Sherakot police station, declined to comment on whether officers were protecting the suspects and could not explain why they were delayed in reaching the site.

“We have arrested three men while raids are being conducted to arrest the other accused,” he said, sidestepping the question about the delay.

He also had no comment on why anti-terrorism sections were not included in the FIR when high-powered weapons resulted in injuries and kept panic-stricken people locked in their homes.

Asked why police failed to include in the FIR the anti-Christian comments the suspects made as stated by the complainants, Azeem said only that the case was registered on Tuesday (Sept. 7), “because we wanted to get to the bottom of the issue.” He said preliminary investigation showed the shooting was rooted in a personal dispute, but “further investigation will reveal the facts.”

“They [Christians] are our brothers, and we will protect them from any element who wants to disrupt peace in the area,” he said. “The incident has been noticed by the government, and all efforts are being made to bring the culprits to justice. It is not a religious issue as is being projected by the Christians.”

The U.S. State Department in December re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on the Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Photo: Asif Masih was shot when Muslim gunmen attacked Lahore, Pakistan’s Sherakot area on Sept. 6, 2021. (Morning Star News)

Pakistan: Another Christian woman accused of blasphemy for forwarding a text

In a report shared with Voice of the Persecuted, Shagufta Kiran, a Christian woman from Islamabad, has been accused of blasphemy for simply forwarding a message. Shagufta was arrested on July 29 by the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and still in their custody under investigation.

Shagufta’s husband, Rafique Maish, told the Pak Christian News (PCN) that armed police raided their home and arrested his wife and two sons accusing them of violating Pakistan’s blasphemy law by forwarding a WhatsApp post which included blasphemous content.

He said: “They harassed my family and took possession of our telephones, computer and other valuable items. The police were armed with firearms instructed us not to move and to keep our hands up. They arrested Shagufta and my two sons without prior information or an arrest warrant.

“They took my wife and sons to the police station, charged Shagufta under 295-A and 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy but later on freed my sons.”

He said that they fled Islamabad because of fear and threats and have moved somewhere they feel safer.

Rafique further shared that Shagufta was arrested because she was a member of a WhatsApp group where someone allegedly shared a blasphemous message, which Shagufta forwarded to other persons without reading and knowing the consequences.

“Shagufta knew nothing about the post, she was not even the author of the post in question but was accused of passing it on,” Rafique explained.

Nasir Saeed, Director of the CLAAS-UK expressed his concern over the ongoing misuse and abused of the blasphemy law against poor and illiterate members of the religious minorities.

He said: “This is not the first time that someone has been charged for sharing a post on the social media, but there are several examples like Patras and Sajid and a young boy Nabeel who was recently granted bail, but the case against him is ongoing and he must prove himself innocent. Meanwhile the police have failed to find and arrest the authors of such posts.

“Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar have recently been released after seven years of blasphemy charges and have safely reached the Netherlands.

Their case was another which broadly followed the pattern of the case of Asia Bibi, who was acquitted by Supreme Court in 2018 but not everyone is lucky like them. Several are languishing in prison for years, but nobody speaks about them.

 “I don’t know how many years it will take for Shagufta Kiran to prove herself innocent.”

The European Union parliament has adopted a resolution in April for Shagufta and Shafqat Emmanuel, demanding that Pakistan allow space for religious freedom and urged the EU authorities to review the GSP Plus status for Pakistan.

Death Threats Force Christian to Abandon Job Promotion

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Riaz Gill was working in his office at one of Karachi, Pakistan’s biggest government hospitals last week when a group of Muslim doctors stormed in and attacked him.

“How can a Chuhra and Bhangi dare to work on the same level as us?” the assailants said, using the pejorative terms for Christians as they dragged the middle-aged Gill out of his office, kicking and beating him.

Serving in the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center (JPMC) as office superintendent for the last six years, Gill had been promoted as deputy director on April 8. Death threats from his colleagues against him and his family had already forced him to resign his new post the week before and return to his former job, but the attacking doctors appeared to want him gone from the hospital altogether.

On Wednesday (June 23), Dr. Usman Zafar, anesthetist Sikandar Hayat and their aides entered Gill’s office and began manhandling him and breaking office furniture, said Gill, a member of the Church of Pakistan.

“We will fix you for good today…We will see how you continue to work at this hospital,” the doctors said as they dragged him on the floor, kicked and beat him, according to Gill.

“They cursed and abused me and said they would first drag my body in the entire hospital and then burn me alive,” Gill said. “I kept shouting for help, but no one came forward to rescue me from them.”

Two armed Sindh Rangers and a constable of the Karachi Police were also present and witnessed the incident, but they just looked on, he said. Eventually hospital security staff rescued him and pushed the assailants out of the office.

The doctors then attacked the office of JPMC Medical Director Seemin Jamali, but she was able to lock the door from inside just in time, Gill said.

“Frustrated by their failure to storm her office, the doctors started hurling abuses at her from the outside and threatened her, saying to terminate my services otherwise they would teach her a lesson too,” Gill said.

No one from the hospital called police, he said. After Gill twice called the police emergency helpline, officers arrived and rescued Dr. Jamali, he said.

“It seems that the entire Muslim staff had turned against me and were protecting the attackers,” he added.

Since his promotion, leaders of the doctors’ union had threatened and harassed him daily, telling him to give up his new position, he said. Gill, his wife and five children, and his elderly mother live in a residence allotted by the government on the hospital premises.

“They started sending armed gangsters to my home as well as office and threatened that they will kill me and my family if I don’t resign,” he told Morning Star News. “They also started a vitriolic social media campaign against me and filed a writ petition in the high court against my promotion.”

Compelled to Resign

The harassment and threats against him and his family became so serious that on June 16 he was compelled to resign his post as deputy director, Gill said.

He filed a complaint against Zafar, Hayat and others with Saddar Police, but it was registered after a delay of two days, and no arrests had been made at this writing.

Despite CCTV evidence of the entire incident and footage aired by several mainstream TV channels that day, police are still slow to take action against the assailants, Gill said.

“They have clearly been influenced by the doctors, and my pleas for safety and protection for myself and my family are being given a cold shoulder,” he said. “I’ve already filed a formal letter for withdrawal of my promotion as deputy director, what else do they want from me now? They are continuing to harass me and my family, but no one is paying attention to our persecution.”

Gill said that he had informed law enforcement agencies and the appropriate government offices, including the Sindh chief minister’s office, of the threats to his life, but there has been no response so far.

“I am an honest and hardworking man,” he said. “The promotion was given to me on the basis of merit, but I never thought that my progress would be judged on the basis of my Christian faith.”

Repeated attempts to contact Jamali for comment went unanswered.

Rash of Persecution Cases

Many Christians – who make up about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population – are children of converts to Christianity from the downtrodden “untouchable” Hindu tribal caste. This “untouchable” caste status is at the root of such attacks and several blasphemy charges against Christians.

Although Article 27 (1) of Pakistan’s Constitution forbids discrimination on grounds of race, religion, caste, sex, residence or place of birth, there have been several cases of persecution against Christians, especially those working in the health sector.

On April 9, two Christian nurses complying with a supervisor’s orders to remove stickers at a government hospital were arrested in Faisalabad after a Muslim employee attacked one of them with a knife over the removal of a sticker bearing Koranic verses.

Nurse Mariam Lal and student nurse Navish Arooj were charged under Section 295-B of Pakistan’s blasphemy statutes against “defiling the Koran” after an Islamist mob demanded “death to blasphemers” inside Civil Hospital, their attorney said. Conviction under Section 295-B is punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment and/or a fine.

The two Roman Catholic nurses are in judicial custody while their families have gone into hiding out of fear of Islamist mobs.

On Jan. 28, Tabeeta Gill, a nurse at a Karachi hospital and a gospel singer, was slapped, beaten and locked in a room by a violent mob after a Muslim co-worker baselessly accused her of blaspheming Islam. Police initially cleared her of denigrating Muhammad but later succumbed to pressure of an Islamist mob and charged her with insulting Islam’s prophet, punishable by death under Section 295-C.

False accusations of blaspheming Islam in Pakistan are common, often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests. Currently, 26 Christians are in prison due to blasphemy charges. They are defendants in 22 blasphemy cases at various levels of the judicial process.

The U.S. State Department in December re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Photo: Police deployed at Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Center day of attacks in Karachi, Pakistan, on June 23, 2021. (Morning Star News screenshot)

Islamists in Pakistan Forcibly ‘Convert’ Catholic, Threaten Family

Social media post announcing ‘conversion’ of Adnan Bashir. (Morning Star News)

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Members of an Islamic extremist political party in Pakistan have forcibly converted a mentally challenged Catholic and are pressuring his family to renounce their faith, a relative said.

Adnan Bashir, 40, wandered out of his home in Gujjar Khan, Punjab Province on April 14 and inadvertently walked into a sit-in protest of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), said his brother, Fayyaz Bashir.

“One Mumtaz Ahmed and some others forced him to publicly recite the Kalima (proclamation of Muhammad’s prophethood, signaling conversion to Islam) and converted him to Islam,” Fayyaz Bashir told Morning Star News, adding that his younger brother has been under treatment for a mental disorder since 2018.

A few hours later acquaintances informed him by telephone that a video of his brother reciting the Kalima at the TLP demonstration was going viral on social media, Fayyaz Bashir said. Back home that evening, Adnan Bashir told his brother and other family members that he was watching the protestors when Ahmed, his former employer, offered him sherbet on the condition that he join the demonstrators.

“Mumtaz is also a local leader of the TLP, and he used the opportunity to force my brother to say the Kalima in the presence of the charged mobs,” Fayyaz Bashir said, adding that they renamed him Khadim Hussain after his “conversion.”

Safdar Chaudhry, chief executive of prisoner welfare group Raah-e-Nijaat Ministry, a Christian organization based in Rawalpindi, said Adnan Bashir has denied converting to Islam.

“When Adnan’s family contacted me for support, I brought him to Rawalpindi and admitted him to a hospital for treatment. When I asked Adnan about his conversion to Islam, he outright denied it, saying he’s a Christian,” Chaudhry told Morning Star News. “It’s obvious that Mumtaz Ahmed exploited Adnan’s mental condition for ulterior motives, but this has put the entire family and community members at serious risk.”

Fayyaz Bashir said his brother had been hospitalized in 2018 at the Government Benazir Bhutto Hospital in Rawalpindi after his condition was discovered. Married with two children, Adnan Bashir began working at a shop owned by Ahmed after he was discharged from the hospital.

“Adnan left the job after some months after his condition again deteriorated,” Fayyaz Bashir said. “We live in a joint family, and it was decided that we would financially support Adnan and his family so that he doesn’t have to suffer from work-related mental stress.”

After the video spread on social media, the family started receiving phone calls from Muslim acquaintances and some unknown callers, he said.

“The callers congratulated us over Adnan’s conversion and asked when the rest of us would also embrace Islam,” he said. “Some others are threatening us with serious consequences in case we ‘force’ Adnan to revert, warning that apostasy is punishable with death in Islam.”

The family is facing a serious security threat as TLP members are monitoring their movement, Fayyaz Bashir said.

“Our lives have become miserable due to the threats and surveillance by TLP activists,” he said. “Our children keep asking what will happen to them, as their Muslim friends keep raising this issue. We can neither seek help from the police or any other government or religious leader, because everyone is fearful of the TLP, and also because this matter can easily be turned into a religious issue.”

Rise of TLP

The TLP was founded by hard-line Barelvi cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi after the 2011 assassination of former Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer.

Taseer was gunned down by his police bodyguard, Mumtaz Qadri, for speaking in favor of Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen, better known as Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to die before she was acquitted. Since its inception, TLP members have engaged in violent protests across the country and are a driving force behind the increase in blasphemy cases and related attacks in Punjab and Sindh provinces.

The violent organization has not only forced government officials to surrender to its demands on several occasions but has also found support within the armed forces of Pakistan. On April 12 police, acting on orders of the federal government, arrested TLP chief Hafiz Saad Rizvi, son of Khadim Rizvi, who had announced that the group would besiege the federal capital on April 20 for failing to act against France over caricatures deemed blasphemous to Islam last year.

Protests erupted in several Muslim countries last year over France’s response to the killing of a history teacher beheaded by an 18-year-old man of Chechen origin for showing cartoons of Muhammad, prophet of Islam, in a class on freedom of speech. At the time, the Pakistani government signed a deal with TLP promising to present a resolution in parliament by April 20 seeking expulsion of the French ambassador and boycotting French products.

Saad Rizvi’s arrest plunged Pakistan into chaos for nearly a week as charged mobs blocked major highways and roads, attacked government and private property, killed at least five policemen and seriously injured more than 850 others.

In retaliation, the federal government declared TLP as a proscribed organization and announced it would ask the Supreme Court to revoke the party’s registration with the Election Commission of Pakistan.

The government on April 14 issued a statement that it has “reasonable grounds to believe that the TLP is engaged in terrorism, [has] acted in a manner prejudicial to the peace and security of the country, [was] involved in creating anarchy in the country by intimidating the public, caused grievous bodily harm, hurt and death to the personnel of law enforcement agencies and innocent by-standers, attacked civilians and officials, created wide-scale hurdles, threatened, abused and promoted hatred, vandalized and ransacked public and government properties including vehicles and caused arson, blocked essential health supplies to hospitals, and has threatened, coerced, intimidated, and overawed the government [and] the public and created a sense of fear and insecurity in the society and the public at large.”

The government move failed to deter the TLP, and though hundreds of members were taken into custody, the party continued to hold several cities hostage by blocking roads and entry and exit points. Prime Minister Imran Khan repeatedly claimed that the government would not succumb to the TLP’s demands, but he ultimately capitulated and released Rizvi and all other TLP members in custody.

The prime minister has since filed a resolution in parliament for debate over expelling the French ambassador from Pakistan.

The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7 re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Life Sentence for Pakistani Christian Changed to Death Penalty

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Ruling in favor of an Islamist legal group’s petition, the Lahore High Court on March 10 changed a sentence of life imprisonment to the death penalty for a Christian convicted of sending a blasphemous text message in 2011.

The high court’s approval of an appeal for the criminal code revision filed by the Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF, or Movement for the Finality of the Prophethood) seeking the death penalty for such violations has raised fears of a surge in convictions under the controversial laws, sources said.

Relatives of Sajjad Masih, the convicted 36-year-old Christian, said Justice Malik Shahzad Ahmad Khan ruled in favor of the revised sentence and then sent Masih’s appeal to a division bench.

“Justice Shahzad has forwarded the appeal to a division bench to avoid pressure from KNF lawyers, and it’s most likely that this appeal, like other similar appeals, will continue to be delayed due to the fear factor,” one source said.

Masih’s appeal of the conviction has been pending with the Lahore High Court for the last seven years.

A trial court sentenced Masih, a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Gojra town, Punjab Province, to life imprisonment in July 2013 for sending a controversial text message to a Muslim in December 2011, though there were several gaps in the prosecution’s case, according to his lawyer. Masih was also ordered to pay a fine of 314,500 rupees (US$2,010).

A large number of KNF lawyers swarmed the courtroom during a hearing on both Masih’s appeal and the KNF petition, an intimidation tactic designed to obtain convictions and harsh sentences, according to sources speaking on the condition of anonymity due to security fears.

“They told the judge that capital punishment was the only sentence for blaspheming against Islam’s prophet, and that Sajjad must be executed without delay,” said one source.

Pressure Tactics

Masih was charged under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws, which states that “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) shall be punished with death, or imprisonment for life, and shall also be liable to fine.”

In 1991, however, the Federal Shariat (Islamic) Court fixed death penalty as the only possible punishment for blasphemy, prompting attorney Ghulam Mustafa Chaudhry, president of the KNF, to assert, “The punishment for blasphemers is only death. There is no alternative.”

Since the KNF was founded 20 years ago, the number of blasphemy cases filed against Christians and other minorities in Punjab Province has greatly increased. Chaudhry says his group is representing almost every complainant in cases across Punjab.

“Hundreds of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat lawyers are using their expertise and influence across Punjab voluntarily to ensure that anyone insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad is charged, tried and executed,” he told Morning Star News.

Supreme Court Advocate Saif Ul Malook, a Muslim lawyer who has won freedom for Pakistan’s most high-profile blasphemy convict, Aasiya Noreen (better known as Asia Bibi), represents other Christians on death row. He agreed that Chaudhry and his group of lawyers were behind the increase in blasphemy cases, especially in Punjab.

Few Muslim lawyers are willing to put their life at risk by defending a person accused of blasphemy, particularly if they belong to a minority community, Malook said.

“The conduct of Khatam-e-Nabuwwat lawyers is very intimidating,” he said, adding that a crowd of lawyers once left him hardly any space to stand and shouted slogans as he tried to present his case to a judge.

The KNF has instilled fear in lower and higher courts with such pressure tactics, he said.

“I am defending a death-row couple, Shagufta Kausar and her paralyzed husband Shafqat Emmanuel, but their appeal against the conviction has been delayed by the high court on one pretext or the other for the past six years,” he said.

‘No One Safe’

No one in Pakistan has been executed for blasphemy so far, but jails are filling up with those sentenced to death.

False accusations are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.

Church leaders and human rights defenders say the government’s failure to curb the misuse of the blasphemy laws was emboldening false accusers and outfits such as the KNF. Currently, 24 Christians are in prison due to blasphemy charges. They are defendants in 21 blasphemy cases at various levels of the judicial process.

“The blatant abuse of the law has imperiled the lives of all Pakistanis irrespective of their faiths,” Bishop Azad Marshall, president of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan, told Morning Star News. “While Christians and other minorities are more vulnerable, Muslims themselves are also targeted with fake allegations. Mere allegations are enough to destroy the lives of the accused and their families.”

Calling for an equally harsh punishment for false accusers, Marshall said that blasphemy allegations must be promptly and thoroughly investigated by an independent and impartial authority.

“The law should be amended so that the FIRs [First Information Reports] in all blasphemy cases are registered only after permission from the concerned government before the courts can take cognizance of them,” he added.

The bishop said that the government continually claims that it intends to curb misuse of the laws but has yet to make any concerted efforts.

“We will keep highlighting this issue during official meetings and at inter-faith dialogues, but it’s time the government realizes its long-term consequences for the country,” he said.

A Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court in 2018 recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.

While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$6). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.

Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamist sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.

The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7 re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Father Recovers Forcibly Converted/Married Daughter

Police found Farah Shaheen, 12, chained in a home in Faisalabad, Pakistan on Dec. 5, 2020. (Morning Star News)

Kidnapped 12-year-old Christian girl in Pakistan was found chained in home of ‘husband.’ 

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Asif Masih beamed with joy to have his 12-year-old daughter back home on Tuesday (Feb. 16) in Faisalabad, Pakistan following her alleged kidnapping and forcible conversion and marriage to a 45-year-old Muslim.

“Praise God, for He has answered our prayers and rescued my daughter,” Masih said hours after Faisalabad Session Judge Rana Masood Akhtar ordered that Farah Shaheen be released from a government shelter “because she wants to go with him.” In a Jan. 23 hearing, Farah had told the court that she wanted to live with her so-called husband, Khizar Hayat – a statement made under threats and pressure at the shelter, her lawyer said.

The court verdict states that since the marriage between Farah and Hayat was not registered and a Nikahnama (Islamic marriage contract) was not verified by the area union council, she could not be kept in the shelter indefinitely.

“She’s deeply traumatized and fearful, but my child is very happy to be back in her family,” Masih told Morning Star News. “Just when we thought that we had lost her, this miracle happened. May God keep all daughters in His protection.”

Masih, a Roman Catholic daily wage laborer, had fought for Farah’s recovery since she was allegedly kidnapped by three Muslims from the family’s home in the Ahmedabad area of Faisalabad in June. The child was allegedly raped, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry Hayat.

Although intercourse with a girl below age 16 is statutory rape in Pakistan, in most cases a falsified conversion certificate and Nikahnama influences police and courts to pardon kidnappers.

Hayat was taken into custody and released on bail, but he has yet to be charged for alleged kidnapping or rape, and fears for Farah’s security remain.

Police found Farah chained in the suspect’s home on Dec. 5 after Masih reported she had been kidnapped on June 25, and a judge ordered her to be kept in police custody; she was then sent to a government-run shelter home while her case went to court.

Church leaders and rights activists said they fear that such shelter homes, police and courts were facilitating the forced conversions of Christian girls.

Rights activist Lala Robin Daniel told Morning Star News that Hayat and his alleged accomplices would remain a threat to Masih and his family until they are taken into custody and punished.

“All those who were involved in this case should be given exemplary punishments so that people have a fear of the law,” Daniel told Morning Star News. “Unless stern legislation is brought against forced conversions of minor girls and the accused are punished, there is little hope for safety of our children.”

Legislation on Religious Conversion

A parliamentary panel on minorities has forwarded key legislation to the government on curbing forced conversions of minority girls in Pakistan, recommending that only adults should be allowed to change religion and only after appearing before a senior district judge.

The Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions on Tuesday (Feb. 16) recommended that the Stymie Forced Religious Conversion Bill be forwarded to the Senate, which will decide whether to forward the draft to the relevant ministry.

The bill includes recommendations for validating conversion, stating, “Any person who is not a child and able and willing to convert to another religion will apply for a conversion certificate from the additional sessions judge of the area where the person ordinarily resides.”

The bill calls for an application form that would include conversion candidates’ current religion, age, gender, national identity number, reason for conversion and details of parents, siblings, children and spouse if any.

The committee suggested that the additional sessions judge shall set a date for an interview within seven days of receipt of the application for conversion.

“On the date provided, the person shall present himself/herself before the additional sessions judge who shall ensure that the conversion is not under any duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation,” the bill states.

The additional sessions judge may, upon the conversion candidates’ request, arrange his/her meeting with religious scholars of the religion the person wishes to convert to, according to the draft. A clause also empowers the additional sessions judge to grant 90 days to the person to undertake a comparative study of the religions and return to the office of the judge.

“Only after satisfaction, the additional sessions judge may issue the certificate of change of religion,” the draft states.

Skepticism

Church leaders endorsed the recommendations in the bill but questioned the will of the government to address the issue.

“This is not the first time such practical recommendations have been proposed to the government, but unfortunately all such pro-minority legislations are either put on the back-burner or outright dismissed under pressure from religious groups,” said Pakistan National Council of Churches President Bishop Azad Marshall.

The Senate’s Standing Committee on Religious Affairs recently rejected a bill seeking protection for Pakistan’s minorities against religiously motivated violence.

Committee chairman Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, of the far-right Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, claimed in a Feb. 2 meeting that minorities in Pakistan already enjoyed “unprecedented religious freedom” and that therefore there was no need for more legislation. Sen. Sirajul Haq of the hard-line Jamaat-e-Islami derided the bill as part of the agenda of Non-Governmental Organizations.

Bishop Marshall said it was unfortunate that some religious leaders have created hindrances to such crucial legislation over the years.

“Forced conversions, misuse of blasphemy law, hate speech and religious violence are real issues affecting the minority communities that need to be tackled together as a national cause,” he said.

Former parliamentarian and rights advocate Mary James Gill said the protection for minorities bill introduced by her Muslim party colleague, Sen. Javed Abbasi, was a sincere effort to curb forced conversions and other issues facing non-Muslim citizens, especially Christians and Hindus.

“It’s time that the government and opposition parties should rise beyond party lines and seriously work on these issues,” she said. “Intolerance and extremism are increasing in our country, and if we don’t stop them now, this fire will eventually devour all of us.”

Gill lauded the recommendations made in the religious conversion bill but, like Bishop Marshall, she too voiced concern over how Islamist parties and groups would react to it.

“Religious leaders need to understand that legislation for protection of minorities does not mean an attack on their faith,” she said. “Matters like forced conversion and misuse of blasphemy laws are serious human rights issues, and all of us need to take a firm stand against it.”

Pakistan led the world in forced marriages, with about 1,000 Christians married against their will to non-Christians from November 2019 to October 2020, according to Christian support organization Open Doors’ 2021 World Watch List report. In terms of abductions, the report listed Pakistan as fourth with an estimated 100 kidnappings.

Overall, Pakistan was ranked No. 5 on the 2021 World Watch List of the countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

According to the Center for Social Justice, 162 questionable conversions have appeared in the media since 2013. About 52 percent of allegedly forced conversions occurred in Punjab Province, and 44 percent in Sindh Province, while 1.23 percent each were reported in the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas. One case was reported from Balochistan Province.

The data show that 54.3 percent of the girls and women were Hindu, 44.4 percent were Christian and 0.62 percent belonged to Sikh and Kalash communities.

More than 46.3 percent of the victims of forced conversion were minors – with 32.7 percent between the ages of 11 and 15 – while only 16.7 percent of the victims were above 18 years old, though lower courts did not always verify those ages through records of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and schools.

VOP Note: Please pray for the many Christian girls who are kidnapped, forced to convert and married to their abductors. They suffer horrific abuse with physical and mental injuries.

Christian Nurse and Two Studying Bible in Park Charged with Blasphemy

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – Police in Lahore, Pakistan have charged two Christians with blasphemy after Muslims objected to their Bible study in a park last weekend, the attorney for one of the accused said.

Haroon Ayub Masih, 26, and friend Salamat Mansha Masih, about the same age, were studying the Bible in Lahore’s Model Town Park on Saturday (Feb. 13) when a group of Muslims approached and told them they should not read the Bible in public, attorney Aneeqa Maria of The Voice Society said.

When Haroon Masih told them that reading the Bible in public was not a crime in Pakistan and that they had no right to stop them, the Muslims began questioning them about their Christian faith and asked if they had any reading material to help them understand the Bible, Maria said.

“On their insistence, Haroon gave them a Christian book entitled, ‘Zindagi Ka Paani’’ or ‘Water of Life,’” said Maria, who represents Haroon Masih. “The youths took the book and left Haroon and Mansha for the time being.”

Haroon Masih returned home a few minutes later, while Mansha Masih remained in the park, she said.

“A few minutes later, the Muslim youths returned to the spot where Mansha was present and attacked him, claiming that he and Haroon had blasphemed against their prophet,” Maria told Morning Star News. “They also summoned the park’s security and lied to them that the two Christians were evangelizing to Muslims in the park and had used derogatory words for the Koran and the prophet [Muhammad].”

Maria said someone from the group of Muslim friends, which was led by Haroon Ahmed, then called the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamist political party reportedly behind most blasphemy cases against Christians and the Ahmadiyya, a sect originating in Islam that Muslims repudiate. A TLP co-founder, Muhammad Afzal Qadri, called for the death of three Supreme Court justices involved in the 2018 acquittal of Christian Aasiya Noreen (Asia Bibi), who had been wrongly convicted of blasphemy and condemned to death.

TLP leaders arrived, and under their pressure police registered a case against the two Christians for derogatory remarks against Muhammad (Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code), punishable by death; defiling the Koran (Section 295-B), punishable by imprisonment for life and fine; and deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings (Section 295-A), punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a fine, Maria said. The complainant is listed as Haroon Ahmed.

“Mansha was taken into custody from the spot, while we have managed to obtain pre-arrest bail for Haroon Masih till Feb. 24,” she said. “Haroon and Mansha were not preaching to the Muslims as alleged in First Information Report [FIR] No. 61/21. In fact, they were reading the Bible and discussing it amongst themselves when a group of Muslim boys, including Ahmed, overheard them and objected to their Bible study.”

She said both Christians come from poor families, and Haroon Masih’s family has had to go into hiding out fear for their safety.

“Haroon will now join the investigation and record his statement with the police,” she said.

The case comes after a Christian nurse was charged with blasphemy in Karachi on Jan. 29 under pressure of an Islamist mob hours after police had dismissed the accusation against her. Staff members of the Sobhraj Maternity Hospital in Karachi on Jan. 28 slapped, beat and locked nurse Tabeeta Nazir Gill, 42, in a room after baselessly accusing her of blaspheming Islam, sources said.

Police had questioned and released Nazir Gill after concluding that the accusations against her were false and based on a co-worker’s personal vendetta, but a Muslim mob later besieged the police station when the complainant called on Muslim leaders to mobilize them. Nazir Gill and her family have gone into hiding since the registration of the FIR.

In a video circulating on social media that a hospital staff member recorded of the attack, Nazir Gill, said to be a Catholic who is also a locally popular gospel singer, is seen crying for help as Muslim hospital personnel slap and punch her, and in one clip they thrust a notebook and pen into her hands to try to force her to sign a confession.

They call for her to “confess your crime in writing” amid a din of accusations and curses, and a staff member strikes her with a broom.

“I swear to God I haven’t said anything against the prophet [Muhammad],” Nazir says in the video clip. “They are trying to trap me in a fake charge.”

Staff members at the Sobhraj Maternity Hospital where Nazir Gill has worked for nine years locked her in a room after trying to force her to sign the confession

False Allegations

False accusations of blasphemy in Pakistan are common and often motivated by personal vendettas or religious hatred. The highly inflammatory accusations have the potential to spark mob lynchings, vigilante murders and mass protests.

Many of those accused of blasphemy never reach the courtroom; violence has killed 62 accused people since 1990, with few prosecutions. Lawyers defending those charged with blasphemy, presiding judges, and individuals speaking against the law are also targeted.

In Pakistan 24 Christians are in prison due to blasphemy charges. They are defendants in 21 blasphemy cases at various levels of the judicial process.

With no presumption of innocence in Pakistan, anyone accused of blasphemy can be jailed, often for years, while those who make false allegations go unpunished. In 2018, a Senate Special Committee on Human Rights and the Islamabad High Court had recommended that those making false blasphemy accusations be given the same punishments as those for blasphemy convictions, but the government dismissed the recommendation. The recommendation also stated that anyone registering a blasphemy case at a police station must bring two witnesses.

While punishment for blasphemy ranges from several years in prison to death in Pakistan, a person making a false accusation faces potential punishment of only six months in prison or a fine of 1,000 rupees (US$6). Successive governments have acknowledged that the blasphemy laws are blatantly misused, but little effort has been made to stop the abuses.

Rights activists say it’s unlikely that any government will move to repeal or amend the blasphemy laws due to fierce Islamic religious sentiments in the Muslim-majority country. They say Pakistani authorities must be urged to immediately implement effective procedural and institutional safeguards at the investigative, prosecutorial and judicial levels to prevent abuse of these laws.

The U.S. State Department on Dec. 7 re-designated Pakistan among nine other “Countries of Particular Concern” for severe violations of religious freedom. Previously Pakistan had been added to the list on Nov. 28, 2018. The other countries on the list are Burma, China, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Sudan and Uzbekistan were removed from the department’s Special Watch List due to improvements in their religious rights records.

Pakistan ranked fifth on Open Doors 2021 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

Police in Pakistan Find Christian Girl Chained in Kidnapper’s Home

Pakistan (Morning Star News) – A Catholic family’s five-month search for their 12-year-old daughter who was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and married to a 45-year-old Muslim in Faisalabad, Pakistan, ended on Saturday (Dec. 5) when police found her chained in her abductor’s house, sources said.

The discovery came on the heels of the killing of a young woman in Rawalpindi, allegedly shot dead by her Muslim suitor for refusing to renounce her Christian faith and marry him.

Earlier this year the father of 12-year-old Farah Shaheen reported his daughter was kidnapped on June 25, forcibly converted to Islam and married against her will. Asif Masih said police refused his efforts to register a case against the suspect, Khizar Hayat.

Police finally registered a case against Hayat on Sept. 19, but officers reportedly remained reluctant to arrest him and recover the child. Under pressure from a court and the Punjab Province government, police on Saturday (Dec. 5) recovered the girl and produced her before a judge.

The investigating officer told the court that after a surprise raid on the house, police found Farah chained in a room. Hayat and his suspected accomplices escaped arrest, he claimed.

A police source told Morning Star News that the kidnappers subjected Farah to physical and mental torture.

“The dark marks on her ankles show that she was fettered for most of her time in captivity,” the source said.

The court has handed her to police custody, ordered an ossification test to determine her age and ordered registration of a case against six suspects, including Hayat, he said.

“It severely reprimanded the investigation officer of the case, Sub-Inspector Mehtab, for intentionally misreporting Farah’s age to be 17 in the inquiry report,” the source said.

The girl’s father, a single parent who works as a daily wage laborer, pleaded for custody of his daughter.

“I’m grateful to the government and the court for ensuring my daughter’s recovery, and I hope they will also punish the men who did this cruelty,” he told Morning Star News.

He added that the court should give custody of Farah to her family so that they can comfort the traumatized child.

Although intercourse with a girl below the age of 16 is statutory rape, in most cases a falsified conversion certificate and Islamic marriage certificate influences police to pardon kidnappers.

Christian Woman Killed

In Rawalpindi, Sonia Bibi on Nov. 30 was shot in the neck and killed while on her way to work. She was 24.

Her mother, Teresa Bibi, told Morning Star News that her daughter, the eldest of six siblings, was murdered by two Muslims after she refused to renounce her Christian faith and marry one of them.

She said that the main suspect, identified only as Shahzad, had been terrorizing her daughter for five months.

“He also sent his mother to our house for the marriage proposal,” she said. “We refused because we belong to different faiths.”

Shahzad continued to follow her daughter whenever she left home for work, often threatening to kill her if she did not change her faith and marry him, Bibi said. She said the other suspect, identified only as Faizan, used to accompany Shahzad in stalking Sonia.

Bibi said her daughter left their home for work at around 9:30 a.m., and about an hour later her employer informed the family that police had found her body on a roadside. Officers who discovered the corpse had discovered her employee card on her person and called her employer.

Police have arrested Faizan, while Shahzad is still on the run.

Sonia Bibi began supporting the family as a housemaid two years ago, after her mother injured her arm.

“She was our breadwinner, and I’m still unable to reconcile with the fact that she’s no more,” Teresa Bibi said.

National Commission for Minorities Member Albert David said that they had taken notice of the gruesome incident and would make all efforts to provide justice to the family.

“The girl’s father is a sanitary worker, and she was helping him in providing for the family,” David said. “The main accused is still at large, but his accomplice, Faizan, has surrendered to the police and is currently in custody. Police are grilling him for information.”

In October a committee formed by the National Commission for Minorities announced that it had finalized a draft law to curb forced conversions. The bill, however, will be finished only after consultations with provincial leaders and representatives of various religious, social and political groups.

Stopping Forced Conversion/Marriages

A key aide to the country’s minister on religious harmony recently announced that the government has taken notice of Christians’ concern over the increasing number of cases of forced conversions and underage marriages and ordered investigations on a “case-to-case” basis.

“No one, whether a person or a group, would be allowed to exploit minor children in the name of religion,” Allama Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi said at a Nov. 30 press conference after a meeting of leaders of the two mainline Protestant and Catholic churches in Pakistan. “We have found out that a majority of such cases are an outcome of sexual exploitation and have no relation with Islam. Our religion forbids forced conversions, and all people using religion to cover their crimes will be brought to justice.”

The president of the National Council of Churches in Pakistan, Bishop Azad Marshall, said at the press conference that girls are suffering physical, mental and emotional trauma as a result of abductions and forced conversion/marriage. The recent cases of Farah, 13-year-old Arzoo Raja of Karachi and 14-year-old Maira Shahbaz of Faisalabad, were highlighted in the media but represent the tip of the iceberg, he said.

“There are many other cases that go unreported due to societal pressure and fear of reprisal by the accused,” he said, adding that current laws are not being fully enforced.

Catholic Archbishop of Lahore Sebastian Shaw echoed his Protestant counterpart’s remarks, saying the rising number of incidents was spreading fear in the minority community.

“An administrative and policy intervention on an urgent basis is necessary to protect the rights of religious minorities, especially of women and children,” he said, adding that the government should strengthen institutional protection of minority rights by undertaking legal, policy and administrative measures against forced conversions.

The Center for Social Justice reports that 162 questionable conversions have appeared in the media since 2013. About 52 percent of allegedly forced conversions occurred in Punjab Province and 44 percent in Sindh Province, while 1.23 percent each were reported in the federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas. One case was reported from Balochistan Province.

The data shows that 54.3 percent of the girls and women were Hindu, 44.4 percent were Christian and 0.62 percent belonged to Sikh and Kalash communities.

More than 46.3 percent of the victims of forced conversion were minors – with 32.7 percent between the ages of 11 and 15 – while only 16.7 percent of the victims were above 18 years old, though lower courts did not always verify those ages through records of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) and schools.

Pakistan ranked fifth on the Open Doors’ 2020 World Watch list of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian, and on Nov. 28, 2018, the United States added Pakistan to its blacklist of countries that violate religious freedom.

VOP Note: Keep praying for this young girl to soon be returned to her family and for recovery of all she has suffered.

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