Pakistan officials release Christian man accused of blasphemy

Munir Masih
Munir Masih

.- A Christian man in Pakistan who was sentenced to 25 years in prison for blasphemy charges was released on Nov. 27.

Munir Masih was sentenced in December 2008 for allegedly touching the Quran with “dirty hands,” reported Fides news. Masih maintained his innocence, however, claiming that accusations were made by a neighbor after an argument between their children. Masih was freed on bail on Nov. 27 by the High Court of Lahore.

Also charged with a 25 year prison sentence for blasphemy was his wife,  Riqqiya Bibi. Although she remains in prison, her lawyers are hopeful that after the release of her husband, she too will be allowed to leave. The high court is scheduled to rule on her case next week.

In a recent interview,  Bishop of Faisalabad Joseph Coutts stated that fundamentalism and intolerance are growing, with particular threats coming from Pakistan’s harsh anti-blasphemy laws.

On the television and radio show, “Where God Weeps,” he explained that the present blasphemy law is “very dangerous” because anyone who “speaks against or defiles the name of the holy prophet Mohamed” either indirectly or directly faces capital punishment. The law does not take into account accidents, ignorance or personal intention, he added.

The bishop noted that the law is dangerous not only for non-Muslims but even for Muslims. At present there are more people in jail in Pakistan for violating the blasphemy law than there are Christians.

“Even if you accidentally drop the Holy Koran you can be punished,” he reported.

Following Masih's release, many are hopeful for similar mercy to be shown toward Asia Bibi, the country's first woman to be sentenced to death over blasphemy charges.

Bibi, a 45-year-old mother of four, was convicted of blasphemy against the prophet Muhammad and sentenced to death by hanging in the town of Sheikhupura, near the capital city, Lahore.

Bibi has said she is being persecuted for defending her faith to Muslim co-workers who claimed that Christianity was a "false religion." She was jailed days later, brought to trial and convicted for blasphemy, a crime punishable by death in Pakistan, which is a self-professed Islamic Republic where the rights of religious minorities are sharply restricted.

The Vatican, as well as various global leaders, have condemned the charges and called for her release.

On Nov. 17, Pope Benedict XVI said Pakistan should grant Bibi “complete freedom ... as soon as possible.” He added a pointed reference to the lack of religious freedom in the country. He also expressed “great concern” for Christians there, “who are often victims of violence or discrimination.”

In the latest news, on Nov. 29 Chief Justice Khawaja Sharif of the Lahore High Court bared President Asif Ali Zardari from pardoning Bibi before the court rules on her appeal. The president had previously asserted that he would intervene with a pardon if Bibi's appeal was delayed.

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