The Catholic and Anglican bishops of Pakistan have written to the country’s president demanding an inquiry after a young Christian man died under suspicious circumstances in police custody. The man’s relationship with a Muslim woman sparked anti-Christian riots after the woman’s disapproving mother accused him of blasphemy.
The body of Robert Fanish, 19, was released to his family on Tuesday, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) reports. His body was covered with marks on his torso and arms, leading observers to believe he had been severely beaten.
The marks on his body call into question the official police claim that Fanish hung himself. The results of a post-mortem examination are expected within days.
More than 3,000 people attended Fanish’s funeral on Tuesday. The funeral turned into a demonstration by people demanding an investigation into the teenager's death.
An official memorandum signed by the Bishops’ Conferences of both the Catholic Church and the Church of Pakistan requests a “fair inquiry” into his death. The memorandum has been sent to Pakistan President Asif Zardari, Prime Minister Syed Gilani and Shahbaz Sharif, Chief Minister of the Punjab Province and brother of former Prime Minister Nawar Sharif.
Fr. Andrew Nisari, vicar general of the Archdiocese of Lahore, told ACN that everyone is “furious” about what happened to Fanish.
“For us it is clear that the police have taken the law into their own hands and have killed him,” he said.
Fanish had been in a relationship with an 18-year-old Muslim woman whose mother was determined to break off their connection. Clergy have alleged that the mother ripped a page containing verses of the Koran out of a book and was seen throwing it in front of the man’s house.
She accused him of desecrating the Koran, sparking a rampage by Muslim extremists. Hundreds of Christians fled for their lives from the Punjab province’s village of Jethki. Extremists burned down a church and several Christian homes.
Fanish was detained in prison while police investigated.
After his detention, Fr. Nisari had initially said Christians were glad he was in jail.
“At least there he will be safe. It means he won’t be killed by the fanatic Muslims,” he had told ACN.
In his most recent comments, Fr. Nisari noted that the outbreak of anti-Christian violence was the fourth in three months. Each incident was sparked by an allegation of blasphemy. Last month, nine people were killed in a violent episode in the Punjab city of Gojra.
The priest reported that Christians in Pakistan feel increasingly under strain.
“The situation for us is getting worse and worse. There is a wave of unrest going around the country in which people are using any opportunity they can to put pressure on Christians,” he explained.
Fr. Nisari told ACN that demonstrations at Fanish’s funeral coincided with a demonstration of 600 people in front of the Press Club in Lahore.
Christian leaders both inside and outside Pakistan have called for the abolition of the country's strict Blasphemy Laws.