Pakistani Christian freed after death sentence

LAHORE, Pakistan (BP) -- A Christian man sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan has been freed by an appeals court, but Muslim-Christian strife continues to flare up in the volatile Islamic nation.

Media reports differ on the exact circumstances of Younis Masih's 2005 arrest for allegedly blaspheming Islam's prophet Muhammad, which is punishable by life in prison or death.

Morning Star News, a news service that reports on persecution issues such as blasphemy laws, said Masih had asked local Muslims who were singing a religious song to do so more quietly, and a mob beat him unconscious the next day.

World Watch Monitor, another news service focusing on persecution issues, cited the Lahore-based Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement's description of the case: Masih -- under the influence of drugs -- got into an argument with a Muslim imam who was leading a worship service at a neighboring home. The next day, Masih threw bricks at the imam's door. Muslims subsequently beat Masih and his wife, and the imam accused Masih of blasphemy.

Both sources agreed that the conflict spread when Muslim mobs attacked Christian homes in the area.

Masih denied that he blasphemed Muhammad, but he was convicted and sentenced to death in 2007. According to World Watch Monitor, Masih's sentence was appealed, and his attorney presented evidence that the original conviction was based on hearsay. On April 3, an appeals court in Lahore overturned Masih's death sentence and declared him innocent.

Masih's release comes three months after Rimsha Masih (no relation), a teenage girl accused of blasphemy, was freed by Pakistan's Supreme Court, which agreed with a lower court that Masih had been framed by a local imam. The case triggered worldwide attention on Pakistan's blasphemy laws, which critics claim are often abused to settle personal scores, often among Muslims. According to Human Rights Watch, at least 16 people are on death row in Pakistan for blasphemy and another 20 are serving life sentences.

Among those jailed: Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five who has been imprisoned since 2009, convicted after a dispute with local Muslim women who later accused her of insulting Muhammad.

Islamists defend the blasphemy laws and militants have been known to murder anyone accused of blasphemy. Two high-ranking Pakistani officials -- Minister of Minority Affairs Shahbaz Bhatti and Punjab governor Salman Taseer -- were gunned down simply for criticizing the laws.

Pakistan's small Christian community is especially vulnerable to blasphemy accusations. Christians make up less than 3 percent of Pakistan's 180 million people, with less than 1 percent considered evangelical/followers of Christ.

'Blasphemy' & local tumult

Accusations of blasphemy also fueled Pakistan's latest case of Muslim violence against Christians. According to Morning Star News, irate Muslims attacked a Christian neighborhood at Francis Colony in the northeast Pakistani city of Gujranwala, injuring at least five Christians as well as damaging a church, shops and vehicles.

Local Christians told Morning Star News the trouble began April 3 when three Christian youths were riding home in a rickshaw taxi with four Muslim passengers. A request by the youth to listen to music -- which the Muslim passengers said was forbidden in Islam -- turned into a scuffle.

Muslim youths subsequently formed a mob trying to provoke Francis Colony residents, who ignored them and stayed home. Christian elders went to the local police and said they were assured that violence would be prevented and the matter would be resolved peacefully.

But, according to Morning Star News, a mob of 500 to 700 Muslims later came from a nearby village and assaulted the neighborhood with firearms and clubs. Police reportedly exchanged some shots with the armed attackers but otherwise stood by as the violence raged.

"They were just looking on as the Muslim boys broke our shops and vehicles," Babar Masih, a local Christian, told Morning Star News. "No one tried to stop the mobs from damaging our property, so some of us took out our weapons and started firing into the air to scare them away. Our boys also came on the roads and confronted the Muslims with batons and sticks."

Aneeqa Maria Akhtar, a Christian lawyer who heads The Voice Society advocacy group, told Morning Star that before the clashes, mosque loudspeakers were used to call for Muslims to "teach the Christians a lesson," but the police did nothing.

"They let it happen," she said. "Timely action by the police would have contained the situation."

According to Morning Star, Gujranwala Division Police Chief Amin Vaince said he has ordered the local police post shut down and officers will be disciplined for negligence.

"The police's job is to serve the people," Vaince said. "It's quite clear that the police did not do their job, resulting in damage to property and injuries to some people. However, we will get to the bottom of things, and those responsible for disturbing interfaith harmony would be dealt with an iron hand."

Pakistani media outlets gave a different picture of the events leading up to the violence, characterizing it as a dispute between a Muslim religious leader and Christians who were playing music too loud. One outlet said Christians started the violence by damaging houses and torturing a Muslim prayer leader who asked them to turn their music down.

The violence came the same day that Pakistan's Supreme Court took police to task for standing by during a March 9 riot in Lahore's Joseph Colony, a poor Christian area where Muslim mobs burned down nearly 200 homes, 16 shops and two churches. Christians marched in Lahore the following day to protest the attack and the blasphemy law.

The havoc arose after two friends, one Christian and the other Muslim, got into a drunken argument. Police warned residents to evacuate that night but most disregarded the warning, not believing anything would come from the argument. When the Christian was accused of blasphemy and a furious mob descended on the community the next day, the police stood by and watched the destruction.

A Punjab official, Hanif Khatana, admitted the police intentionally did nothing.

"The religiously charged mob was avoided by police, for if any of them got killed, the issue might have been blown out of proportion and spread all across the country," Khatan argued, according to Morning Star.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, however, was not impressed with Khatana's line of reasoning.

"Do you mean whenever there is a charged mob, the police should shy away from confronting them?" Chaudhry said, according to Morning Star. "Should we leave the SC [Supreme Court] building if any mob attacks and take shelter in Judges Colony?"

Justice Azmat Saeed also challenged Khatana's statement.

"Is the Punjab government not ready to take risk for protection of Christians?" he inquired, according to Morning Star. "It's disturbing and upsetting ... you cannot punish a community and desecrate their churches."

Ministry & prayer

In the days following the attack on Joseph Colony, victims were sitting in front of their temporary homes -- white tents that barely kept out the cold -- still in shock and feeling helpless. The charred remains of their lives are near enough that you can smell the lingering stench of burned wood and melted plastic.

Christian worker Young Rhee* says Joseph Colony residents now live in fear and worry about their future. Rhee and a group of Christians from another section of town spent time circulating through the tented city, offering a listening ear, prayer and help.

Rhee described the destruction from the mob as vast. Homes are hollow, blackened structures or totally reduced to ashes. Women have sat in the midst of the aftermath, sifting through their belongings. One woman cried out in grief when she found her burnt Bible in the rubble.

One man said he left his house with just one outfit, expecting to come back to his home after things settled down. But the next day, he saw his house of 40 years burning on television.

"I feel miserable and horrible," the man said. "If I had burned in my house, at least I would be crowned in heaven now."

Rhee nodded and let the man talk out his grief, then simply asked, "Who can protect you in such a tragedy?"

Without hesitation, the man pointed up, indicating that only God protects him.

The visitors offered comfort and encouragement, sharing God's promise and praying as tears flowed down the cheeks of the affected. Some heard for the first time of the One who can truly protect them. Others thanked God for protecting them and for no loss of life.

Rhee asks believers worldwide for prayer that:

-- The affected area may be reconstructed quickly and the victims recover from their shock.

-- This persecution and trial may be the opportunity for a spiritual revival among believers in this area and across Pakistan.

-- Believers will be bolder in their faith

-- Church leaders will be united in fulfilling the Great Commission

-- A resolution to the blasphemy law is found.


*Name changed. Compiled by John Evans, a writer based in Houston, and Art Toalston, editor of Baptist Press. Susie Rain, a writer in Southeast Asia, also contributed to this report. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).

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